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New contract signals BSO's faith in Marin Alsop

Though budget troubles and contract negotiations loom, director has been a definite plus

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

11:28 AM EDT, July 29, 2013

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Any number of things might happen in — or to — our world between now and 2021, a year that seems so sci-fi-distant. But one thing can be counted on: Marin Alsop will be music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra the whole time.

Last week, the BSO announced an extension of Alsop's contract, adding six years to her most recent deal, which was to have expired in 2015.

Assuming all goes as planned, the conductor will have enjoyed a 14-year tenure by the time this new contract expires, making her the second-longest-serving music director since the BSO was founded in 1916 — a year less than Sergiu Comissiona (1969-84); a year more than those next in the longevity line, Gustav Strube (1917-30) and David Zinman (1985-98).

Alsop's hiring set off global headlines, both because she was the first woman to gain the top artistic post at a major American orchestra and because the BSO players publicly objected, describing the search process as rushed.

"My start was so surprising, on so many levels," Alsop said with a laugh during an interview in her Meyerhoff Symphony Hall dressing room after the contract announcement. "I didn't come into this with any expectations. But this has gradually become my home. It feels natural. It has been an organic process. I love the orchestra, and I love living here."

All things considered, the choice of Alsop has been a decided plus for the BSO. Statistics tell part of the tale.

During the season before Alsop's arrival, average capacity at the orchestra's home base, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, was 58 percent; it was 70 percent last season. The orchestra also reports a steady increase in the number of contributions.

But after several balanced budgets, deficits have returned, starting with $800,000 last fiscal year. A smaller deficit is expected when the current fiscal year ends next month.

Still, the BSO is in a stronger, more dynamic position than it was in 2007. Artistically speaking, the Alsop years so far have been impressive, too; the next eight should be even more so.

This is not the scenario anticipated by those who lobbied against Alsop's appointment, back in the afterglow of the BSO's six years with music director Yuri Temirkanov. The inspired and inspiring Russian conductor was responsible for some unforgettable, emotionally gripping performances. No question the BSO was fortunate to make music with Temirkanov.

But it's also fortunate to be making music with Alsop. At her best, she produces terrific sparks, as she did so compellingly last season in works by Wagner and Prokofiev. And when it comes to the technical duties of a conductor, the responsibility to fine-tune an ensemble, Alsop has proved her worth.

"I heard the BSO with Temirkanov and Zinman," said Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, an association with more than 800 member orchestras. "But when I heard them at Carnegie Hall in May, the sheer orchestral execution of the playing was just off the charts. I was completely blown away. There was such a connection between Marin and the orchestra."

What the BSO plays is also a part of the Alsop picture. She greatly revitalized the orchestra's programming, imaginatively integrating more contemporary works into the mix.

One of her most off-the-beaten-path choices in recent years, Arthur Honegger's 1935 oratorio "Jeanne d'Arc," didn't just receive an incisive performance with Alsop at the helm; it generated the highest number of single ticket sales for a classical BSO concert during the 2011-2012 season.

"I want to tantalize people," Alsop said, "not just give them something they know, but also surprise them. This is a community with an appreciation for innovative ideas; they're curious and intellectual."

And enthusiastic.

Having the public on your side is an awfully good thing for any conductor, any orchestra. Alsop and the BSO get hearty responses week after week (a burst of whooping, unusual for classical concerts, typically greets her when she walks onstage).

There are no doubt those in the audience and in the orchestra who don't share that enthusiasm, who fault the music director for one thing or another. But they surely notice the positive energy inside the hall. You can hear it, you can feel it. And you can't put a price on that.

The BSO buzz these days also has to do with the innovative educational projects initiated by Alsop —the OrchKids venture in inner-city schools (she put up $100,000 of her own to get that going), and vibrant projects for adult amateur players.

"Other orchestras are calling up the Baltimore Symphony and asking how they do this," Rosen said, "because what the BSO is doing is genuinely new. They are at the forefront of educational work. The Baltimore experience shows ways for an orchestra to create value in the community over and above their main concert series."

Before the BSO can continue its activities, on or off the stage, there is the matter of the musicians' contract, which expires in September. Negotiations are underway.

In a statement released through violinist Gregory Mulligan, head of the BSO players' committee, the musicians congratulated Alsop on her contract extension and said they were "happy for the stability this development signals to our orchestra."

But the statement added that it's now time to focus on "correcting the downward trend in our own compensation." (The most recent public figure for Alsop's compensation, in 2009-2010, was about $700,000; terms for last week's contract extension have not been disclosed.)

Over the past several years, musicians have made substantial financial concessions to help stabilize the orchestra. They are clearly overdue for a boost. Players and management have agreed to a no-comment policy during negotiations, but one nonparticipant has weighed in on the topic.

"I think the musicians should make a lot more money," Alsop said. "At the top of the list of things we have to do is retain our great musicians at salary levels that are competitive in America. I hope they feel the kind of appreciation and embrace that the community — and certainly I — have for them. I still feel we have a lot to accomplish together."

tim.smith@baltsun.com