New Year's Eve reflections on a decade of covering Baltimore's music scene

With the Decade of the Naughts fading away, I started to look back, as one does on such momentous occasions, and realized that said decade corresponds almost exactly with my time in Baltimore – I arrived three and a half months into 2000. And that had me thinking back on the highs and lows of covering the music scene (and lately, some theater and art as well) for the Baltimore Sun and adjusting to life in Charm City.

The latter hasn’t really been too difficult, except for the occasional manifestation of a you’re-not-one-of-us attitude from some Baltimore natives (early on, one of them huffily declared that my S.O. and I would never be accepted as new customers of a certain dry cleaning establishing because we weren’t from here – a fact that we enjoyed disproving later by becoming customers of that very same business). I hasten to add that most folks here have been welcoming and fun, those met in person and those I know only from their engaging comments on this blog.

As for the music of the past 10 years, I look back fondly on the happenstance of my arrival on the job just weeks after Yuri Temirkanov started as music director of the Baltimore Symphony. I felt quite fortunate to chronicle his tenure, and to hear some performances that rank among the most affecting I’ve ever experienced. His detractors can continue to carp all they want about one supposed shortcoming or another, but I’ll always remember instead the emotional intensity he could generate onstage, especially in works by Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Mahler. Music-making like that doesn’t occur every day, anywhere, and we were damn lucky to encounter it in Baltimore.

I also recall with particular relish the

European tour Temirkanov and the BSO made in late November-early December 2001. That’s when conductor and players really started to come together and begin building a bond that would last right through his final concerts with them. I remember an encore in Vienna of Elgar’s “Nimrod” that was so stunning in its beauty that I readily confess to getting teary-eyed (afterward, I noticed I wasn’t the only one).

Recollections of the Temirkanov years involve remembering the last portion of it, when the orchestra took an unfortunate chance on a CEO who promptly drove the BSO into a ditch. I still think Temirkanov would have stayed a while longer had not that guy shown up, but no use thinking about that now.

The whole messy business of how the appointment of Temirkanov’s successor, Marin Alsop, was handled by management left quite a bad mark on the BSO’s decade. But there’s no mistaking the rapid recovery the ensemble made with Marin at the helm (especially after that CEO moved on and was replaced by a real pro). The BSO leaves the Naughts in remarkably good shape musically and, I think for the most part, emotionally, and Marin deserves a great deal of the credit.

What she and the orchestra achieved with Bernstein’s “Mass” last season counts as a major highlight of the decade, a triumph on every level. I’ll never forget the expressive punch of the performance given on tour at the Palace way uptown in Manhattan, with several hundred local students jumping up from the first rows to join in the biggest choral numbers. I still get goose-pimply when I think about the "Donna nobis pacem" that day. 

The decade left bittersweet opera memories. Although I found plenty of fault with some casting and staging decisions, I also enjoyed many a Baltimore Opera Company venture, none more so than the compelling production of Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” during the city-wide Russian festival (a Temirkanov initiative, by the way). At its best, the company could be counted on to deliver the goods in a highly effective manner.

That the organization should have folded in ’09 is still hard to accept or understand. It seems that a tragic failure of will was as much to blame as anything – not just the will to raise money on a huge scale, but to reach consensus internally, to resolve personality and/or managerial issues responsibly and maturely. The tragic fall of Baltimore Opera could well cast a shadow on many a succeeding decade.

But, all in all, I’m feeling OK as 2009 gives way to 2010. There are lots of positive things still happening musically, big and small; and lots of people wonderfully dedicated to fueling the city’s cultural fires. Personally, I’ve had a rewarding decade here, all things considered, and I’m hopeful of enjoying another one.

So Happy New Year, bloggie buddies. I look forward to interacting with you on all sorts of matters in the days ahead. 


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