Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond

Baltimore Symphony embarks Tuesday on first international tour in 13 years

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will move back into the international spotlight for the first time in 13 years when it departs Tuesday for England, Scotland and Ireland with 102 players, 10 staff members and 78 cargo trunks carrying 6,800 pounds of equipment.

Featuring programs tied to the centennial of American superstar conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, a mentor and friend to BSO music director Marin Alsop, the orchestra will make its debut at the high-profile Edinburgh International Festival and BBC Proms in London. The BSO will reach even wider audiences via BBC radio and television broadcasts of the London performance.

The final stop on the nine-day trip will be for the International Concert Series in Dublin.

“To perform at these festivals, one must be invited, which says a lot about the orchestra,” said BSO president and CEO Peter Kjome.

Principal horn player, Philip Munds, who joined the orchestra in 2004 just before one of its three well-received tours with then-music director Yuri Temirkanov, looks forward to being back on the road with his colleagues.

“It’s really good for the orchestra to play in different places,” said Munds. “It makes you step it up. It broadens our awareness and gets us hyper-focused.”

Financial constraints kept travel off the table after the BSO’s last trip in 2005. Touring has been a goal of Alsop’s since she took the helm in 2007.

Fees the orchestra will earn for its performances, intensive fundraising and “great philanthropic support” have resulted in enough money to cover the tour budget of a little more than $1 million, Kjome said. (The BSO’s annual budget is around $28 million.)

That philanthropy includes contributions from BSO board members and a local real estate business, the Bozzuto Group, as well as Visit Baltimore, the Maryland State Arts Council and the Maryland Department of Commerce.

That department, which contributed $120,000, is sending three staff members to the United Kingdom in conjunction with the BSO.

“We have a lot of activity in that region, especially England, involving cyber, life science and health care [businesses], so this gives members of my team a chance to engage with our contacts there and invite them to the BSO’s concerts,” said Maryland Commerce Secretary Mike Gill.

The BSO’s tour, Gill added, is a convenient way to underline the department’s pitch to entice overseas businesses to the state.

“We see the cultural aspects of Maryland, and specifically Baltimore, as a significant part of the story of economic development we try to tell,” Gill said. “I’m a Baltimore kid, and we need to get more positive stories out there about Baltimore. The BSO concerts can help people realize that something great is ha ppening here. When you have a great orchestra like we do, it validates a city.”

Validation for the BSO is very much an aim of the tour, too.

“All the best orchestras bring their brand and their music overseas. It’s great that we are at a place where we can do this again,” said violist Jacob Shack, who joined the BSO in 2016. “I think artistically we’re at a really amazing level right now, and it will be great to showcase that in those great halls.”

Venues include Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, a local landmark since 1914 (“It’s gorgeous,” Alsop said), and Dublin’s National Concert Hall.

The most imposing stop on the tour is one of England’s signature performance spaces, the elliptical, grandly domed, 5,200-seat Royal Albert Hall in London.

This massive edifice is home to the Proms (short for “promenade concerts”), a summer series launched in 1895. A distinctive element of the Proms is that hundreds of standees pack the open floor in front of the stage during performances.

“I am most looking forward to playing at the Proms,” Shack said. “That’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity.”

Alsop, who has conducted other orchestras at the Proms, understands the enthusiasm.

“I can’t wait to see the musicians’ expressions when they walk into that hall,” she said. “The first time you see it, you can’t believe it.”

Alsop made history when, in 2013, she became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, an exuberantly festive, nationally televised program capped with patriotic British music. She was invited back to lead the Last Night in 2015.

The BSO’s performance Aug. 27 at Royal Albert Hall is a “pretty high-pressure” event, Alsop said, because it will be aired live on BBC radio and filmed by BBC TV for a broadcast to air the evening of Aug. 31 in London. (The BSO will stream that telecast at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 31. Admission is free.)

“The orchestra has a wide listenership in the U.K. because they play BSO recordings on the classical stations there,” Alsop said. “I think people are really floored by the quality. They don’t expect it of an orchestra from a city our size, and a city known for having so many issues. People still reference ‘The Wire’ when you mention Baltimore. We’d all love for Baltimore to be known for something other than that.”

The BSO’s strengths will be put to the test in the demanding repertoire chosen for the tour.

“All the pieces we’re playing reference back to [Bernstein] in some way,” Alsop said.

Among the Bernstein works will be his “Serenade,” featuring eminent Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti as soloist, and Symphony No. 2 (“Age of Anxiety”) with brilliant French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist. The BSO will also play music of Robert Schumann, Dimitri Shostakovich and George Gershwin associated with Bernstein’s conducting career.

The second of the BSO’s performances in Scotland, the closing night of the Edinburgh Festival, will be an all-Bernstein program on Aug. 25. That would have been his 100th birthday.

Bernstein, who died in 1990, was a major influence on Alsop.

“Lenny knew more about music, about most things, than anyone I ever met,” Alsop said. “He really believed in me and gave me the courage to be myself, which was a great gift.”

On Aug. 14, Alsop led the BSO in a tour send-off concert before a large, enthusiastic crowd at Meyerhoff Hall. One of those enjoying that preview concert was Bill Nerenberg, a BSO patron who is among more than 80 people — family, friends, orchestra staff — that will be joining the tour.

“The overriding reason my wife and I are going,” Nerenberg said, “is our deep love of the orchestra and of Marin, to celebrate her tenure and what I consider to be her tremendous growth as a conductor since she arrived here. I think the orchestra helped her achieve that.”

In addition to fans and relatives who are paying their way to cheer the BSO on — “The largest number of guests we’ve ever had on a tour,” BSO vice president and general manager Tonya McBride Robles said — the orchestra is taking an unarmed security officer.

“Early on when we were discussing a tour, musicians expressed concerns about security,” Robles said. “We know we have to be aware all the time, as we were reminded with what just happened in London,” when a man crashed a car Aug. 14 outside the Houses of Parliament.

Bringing a security officer along isn’t the only difference since the BSO last traveled overseas in 2005. Technological advances mean that there’s now an app to monitor temperature and humidity on the truck that will transport the musicians’ valuable instruments in each country.

“Also new is that an endangered species permit had to be obtained,” said Rebecca Cain, the BSO’s director of operations. “International laws are tighter now, so if a string player has ivory on a bow tip or water-monitor-lizard skin on the grip, authorities want to know that it was legally obtained. We have to get affidavits from the musicians. And we’re not taking our rosewood marimba, because rosewood is on the endangered list.”

For a long while, it seemed that BSO touring was endangered, too. That the bags and cargo containers are being packed again pleases board chair Barbara Bozzuto.

“This couldn’t be better for our city, our state and our patrons,” Bozzuto said. “In this age, when people can hear music on many delivery systems, this tour shows that live music is really exciting, really important. And when the BSO comes home, maybe our audience will think that, too, and will be very proud of our orchestra.”

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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