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August 1, 2011

Monday Musings: Another summer without substantive music in Baltimore

It's once again that time of year when I whine about the lack of significant, substantive music in Baltimore during the long summer months.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra just folded up its tent until September, having offered what seemed to me to be a particularly uninspiring assortment of off-season fare.

There were the usual appeal-to-the-masses things, such as Saturday's finale of video game music. The penultimate program Friday night at the Meyerhoff was devoted to Gershwin -- yes, another Gershwin program.

(For the record, the BSO played well for conductor/clarinetist Carl Topilow, who revealed a smooth, natural approach to the music. I particularly enjoyed Terrence Wilson's spontaneity and panache in "Rhapsody in Blue." And Kishna Davis, who was in a contagiously exuberant mood, offered some very vibrant singing, especially in "Somebody Loves Me" and "My Man's Gone Now.")

There was a Beatles night along the way this summer and a few other things I can't recall now. I never was terribly interested in the the lineup the BSO put together this year.

Of course, the orchestra's summer season is not about pleasing me (although, come to think of it, that seems like quite a reasonable goal). I understand the need to sell tickets and I understand that experience has led the BSO to conclude that the Baltimore public wants only light, bright fare when the temperature starts to climb.

What I don't understand is ... 

why we can't get a combination that satisfies the pop tastes on enough nights, but also has room for things that will appeal to the more classically-grounded BSO fans.

It's been so disheartening to see the orchestra struggling to find something that clicks economically and artistically for years now. The "Summer MusicFest" days of a decade or so ago may not have lit up the box office, but they sure did deliver fun and substance in pretty good measure.

I've mentioned before that I like what the New York Philharmonic started a while back, the "Summertime Classics" series devoted to the kinds of pieces that helped many of us become attracted to classical music -- the greatest hits that are now mostly consigned to radio. The Philharmonic has an engaging host/conductor, Bramwell Tovey, who seems to have made this series work. No reason why the BSO couldn't devise something similar and find someone with similar public appeal to put on the podium.

I also think it's worth looking at a true festival format, a concentration of events around a clear theme (composer, genre, whatever) and a heavily marketed approach that targets people looking for a cool time and musical rewards. Is it really impossible to do something like this in Baltimore? Is it because not enough people hang around town at this time of year, or because it's just too darn hot for those who do?

Well, here's a little something to consider. Back in the '90s, the now sadly extinct Florida Philharmonic and its then-music director James Judd launched a summer enterprise in Fort Lauderdale called Beethoven by the Beach.

Think about it: South Florida. Summertime. Heat. Terrible humidity. Few tourists. Sounds insane, right?

No festival should have been successful in that place at that time, but this one, at least early on, did quite well. There were lots of symphonies and concertos from the orchestra, and the festival also had room, in smaller venues, for things like the complete piano sonatas (I still recall some goth kid who attended every one of the sonata concerts -- he had never heard any of them and wanted to get the full experience).

I mention this Beethoven fest because the BSO used to drop Beethoven's Ninth into the summer lineup almost as a matter of course, one surefire ticket-seller. But the orchestra never seized on the opportunity to develop further the public's love of that work and that composer.

It doesn't seem so insane to me to try something like a Beethoven in Baltimore festival. In addition to lots of the obvious repertoire, there could be an offbeat touch here and there, maybe a Mass or a concert version of "Fidelio" (I doubt any Baltimore opera company will ever bring us this great work).

Find some some alternative, more intimate concert spaces where you could try out the piano sonata cycle, or perhaps the string quartets (the Meyerhoff lobby could be usable in this regard).

Go out on a limb and get a hotshot pianist to perform Liszt transcriptions of the symphonies. Build programs that show Beethoven's influence on subsequent composers. You could keep the Beethoven theme going for years, with a little imagination.

There's always Tchaikovsky to build a summer festival around, too, if Beethoven doesn't float your boat. Tchaikovsky's good box office, isn't he? And wouldn't it be nice to hear the "1812 Overture" indoors for a change, not to mention as part of broader look into the composer?

Marketing a festival that has a point and a personality, that contains lots of popular fare and popular prices, should not be beyond the BSO or Baltimore. There have to be enough music lovers, or music-curious folks, who are not down-y-oshun all summer long, who crave some stylish, substantive entertainment.

And I'm not saying that a "Final Fantasy"-type concert, or tribute band sort of show, or a Gershwin program can't still be part of the equation. It's a matter of clever packaging and determination.

A summer festival would be a great time to try out new visual approaches -- big screen projections, for example. And new formats -- maybe late-night concerts, at prices attractive enough to draw a younger crowd (this concept, which has proven popular in some places, seems like a natural for summertime).

Anyway, I just think there's an opportunity for something bigger, better and cooler from the BSO from late-June through July. The summer season too often feels like an after-thought.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:32 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes


All good ideas, Tim, but are they economically feasible? I couldn't tell from your column whether you were recommending an indoor or outdoor series but either way, for the BSO to add programming (with all of thosae costs) needs to make economic sense, given its financial condition. Comparing the BSO to the New York Phil (or the L.A. Phil in Hollywood Bowl) is not really appropriate, from a financial point of view.

We who live up where the air is rare do not concern ourselves with such mortal issues as budgets. However, I don't see how a real summer festival with a strong theme and/or marketing pull is beyond the reach. The musicians are being paid anyway for those weeks, so some of the cost is a given. And why on earth can't I mention the NY Phil's programming? Surely that ensemble is not the only one financially stable enough to perform classical favorites in summertime. Heck, the BSO even had Bramwell Tovey here one summer (2008), and I don't recall any economic collapse following that. Besides, he's hardly the only conductor with popular appeal. The key to a successful orchestral summer fest, I'd say, is a combo of rep and podium personality. Neither should break the bank. TS

First, I want to say how much I like that interesting photo of the Meyerhoff in this post. (Photo credit?) Re summer festivals, the BSO and maybe some opera companies might want to look at Bard Summerscape at Bard College in the Hudson Valley for ideas. I just attended for my second time, though I only took in the featured opera (Richard Strauss's "Die Liebe der Danae"). A couple of observations, however, that might count against a similar festival in Baltimore: The Hudson Valley is a much more pleasant place to be at the height of the summer heat than downtown Baltimore. Parking at Bard is plentiful and free -- understandably easy to do at Bard's rural location.

That was a Sun staff photo from several years ago. It would be nice if we had a festival-like setting around here. Some folks have proposed a summer opera festival at Goucher College because of its more verdant environment (and free parking). I can't imagine the BSO using that spot, though. As for Meyerhoff, maybe a kindly patron could underwrite free parking for summer concerts. I still think it's a question of programming, personality and marketing. TS

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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