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January 5, 2012

Looking ahead at the music, theater scenes with a grain of optimism

On Wednesday afternoon, I took part in a conversation on WYPR's Midday with Dan Rodricks about the state of the arts in Baltimore (if, understandably, you feel just awful that you missed it, there's a podcast available).

Today, I am still thinking about the topic, especially as it applies to my primary beats, classical music and theater. On the whole, I feel optimistic about both, which is unusual for me. There seems to be a positive vibe in the air, despite all the woes and uncertainties.

Yes, we recently lost some valuable organizations (Opera Vivente, Chesapeake Chamber Opera), but we gained a big one (Lyric Opera Baltimore).

Yes, it's still hard to raise money for performing arts groups, but that doesn't seem to stop them from multiplying. Just start counting the theater companies around town, for example.

Yes, Baltimore Symphony musicians are still ...

scandalously underpaid; and, yes, some of them have left to find greener pastures. But the orchestra plays better than ever these days, with a discipline and finish that cannot fail to impress.

When I read the crime reports, drive past neglected parts of town or receive the city tax bill in the mail, I can get very glum about Baltimore.

But when I see the continued flourishing on the arts scene -- the start-up enterprises, newly forged collaborations, daring choices of work to perform -- I do feel the future looks pretty tempting.

There's a good buzz about the BSO, both for its concerts and its outreach (the expanding OrchKids project is a terrific venture). Lyric Opera seems to be percolating nicely.

Longtime groups, among them Concert Artists of Baltimore, Handel Choir, Baltimore Choral Arts, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, are very much in the game.

Mobtown Modern and the Evolution Contemporary Music Series spice things up regularly. The sounds pouring out from the Peabody Institute seem stronger and brighter than ever.

The Shriver Hall Concert Series continues to keep the bar high. Against the odds, An die Musik still offers a rich mix of performances, seemingly around the clock. Good things invariably happen on Sunday afternoons in area churches, thanks to energetic concert presenters.        

On the theater side, Center Stage and Everyman provide regular jolts of highly professional work. New leadership at the formers and a new home soon for the latter will only increase the dynamic level.

Single Carrot and other adventurous ensemble companies never stop pushing the envelope of contemporary theater. The city's long-running community theaters continue to enliven the scene.

Theatre Project remains a vibrant place for new work. The arrival later this year of Baltimore Open Theatre promises exposure to innovative troupes new to the city. 

There will always be things we need (more consumers of music and theater, for a start) and things that can be done better. 

Those organizations lucky enough to have endowments need reinforcement; those without need to start them. Groups operating on a shoestring could develop considerably with even modest support (there is only so far a DIY attitude can go). Those with sizable budgets require constant replenishing; enough of an increase in support would mean better pay for artists, better reasons for them to stay here for the long haul.

How cool it would be if a local angel or two from the one-percent crowd suddenly showered the arts with tons of cash. But I know that a hefty, extravagant burst of philanthropy is not likely, so I don't spend a lot of time letting my imagination roam.

Instead, I take comfort, and derive hope, from the way Baltimore's arts community has hung on through nasty economic conditions and still manages to surprise with new ideas, freshly intensified passions. A city that has so much going on culturally, above ground and underground, in big venues and small, is doing OK and should do even better in 2012.

SUN STAFF PHOTOS (the group shot includes members of various ensemble theater companies)

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:25 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

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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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