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Two new books reflect Baltimore's musical history

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Big chunks of Baltimore's classical musical history engagingly chronicled in two new books.

Two of Baltimore's longest-lasting cultural institutions are chronicled in new books that make for engaging reads (and might find a spot on your holiday gift — or wish — list).

They're both inside jobs, so to speak. A musician in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has written that ensemble's centennial history; a former Handel Choir of Baltimore board member has covered that group's story.

Both authors, not surprisingly, reveal a pronounced affection for their subjects. But, for the most part, they avoid publicist-type writing, giving the ups and downs of these organizations pretty much equal treatment. These well-researched histories cram a lot of detail and incident into the pages (words of mine, extracted from concert reviews and other pieces published in The Baltimore Sun, crop up in those pages), shedding fresh light on the BSO and Handel Choir.

'Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: A Century of Sound,' by Michael J. Lisicky

Even longtime BSO subscribers are bound to find some surprises in this well-illustrated history of an orchestra that started off as a city-funded enterprise. (Nice to know that, a century ago, it wasn't political suicide to embrace government support for the arts.) Lisicky, a BSO oboist, brings to life those early years when the orchestra was a focus of civic pride, so much so that lines formed around the block when tickets went on sale.

There's valuable material here, too, about the separate-but-unequal Baltimore City Colored Orchestra — "In 1935, the Baltimore Symphony received an annual city subsidy of $30,000," Lisicky writes, "the Colored Orchestra, $1,300." And it's awfully sobering to see two almost identical BSO Christmas concert programs pictured side by side, one at the Lyric Opera House "for children," the other at Frederick Douglass High School "for colored children." At least the orchestra played the same Handel, Mozart and Grieg pieces for both audiences.

Fascinating items pop out continually in the book, including an attempt to keep female players out of the BSO, and a bizarre arrangement that found the ensemble performing in the South under the banner "Boston Pops Tour Orchestra" in 1965 (and being followed by Alabama state troopers suspicious that the musicians in the bus were civil rights activists).

Telling details emerge about all the music directors — trivia fans will enjoy brushing up on Gustav Strube, George Siemonn, Ernest Schelling, Werner Janssen, Howard Barlow, Reginald Stewart, Massimo Freccia and Peter Herman Adler — who paved the way for the parade of higher-profile podium stars that started with Sergiu Comissiona's appointment in 1969.

Strikes, budget woes, travels, major concert highlights, the disastrous experiment with an outside-the-box CEO, the controversy over Marin Alsop's appointment, new educational initiatives — they're all here. (So is an offbeat, if not off-key, foreword by celebrated pianist and former BSO associate conductor Leon Fleisher.) BSO fans may quibble over what is left out or passed over, but it still adds up to breezy, informative ride through 100 eventful years.

$24.95. bsomusic.org

'A History of the Handel Choir of Baltimore (1935 to 2013),' by Carl B. Schmidt

The timing of this book might not seem quite right, since it just misses the Handel Choir's 80th anniversary. But a 78-year history of the organization is still worth having, especially since it makes for a nice upbeat finish, with the ensemble in sound shape, artistically and financially, after some dicey times. And at least there is a mention of current artistic director Arian Khaefi, who has done much to build on the improvements and innovations made by his predecessor, Melinda O'Neal.

To be sure, this chronicle is not for the general reader, but it should appeal to anyone interested in looking back on decades of cultural life in Baltimore. And Schmidt, professor emeritus of music history and culture at Towson University, tells the story in a natural, direct manner. For all the footnotes, there isn't a hint of stuffiness.

It is fascinating to read of efforts starting back in the 1920s to make Baltimore's contributions to National Music Week more substantive than what was being offered by the likes of the Maryland Casualty Women's Chorus. That Baltimore was ready for a major choral enterprise can be gleaned from the 500-plus people who responded to a call for singers to perform oratorios in the spring of 1935. By that winter, the Handel Choir was officially established, providing 300 voices to perform Handel's "Messiah" with the Baltimore Symphony at a standing-room-only Lyric Opera House (150 standees were reported).

The choir's steady broadening of its repertoire and reach is detailed here, along with bumpy days. Schmidt treats the material with an even hand, especially concerning the 25-year tenure of conductor T. Herbert Dimmock, and certainly makes the case for the organization's resilience. It's fun to learn that it headed off financial disaster in the 1950s by entering a TV talent contest and flooding the station with votes.

$85. rowman.com.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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