It all started with a sort of "Kumbaya" moment.
A municipal band founded by the city of Baltimore in 1914 played outdoor concerts in the summer months at the base of the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon. In June 1915, Frederick Huber, manager of the summer school program at Peabody, approached Mayor James Preston with an idea to make those concerts even more enjoyable.
Huber suggested singalongs, with lyrics projected onto a sheet spread across the front of the Peabody Institute. Preston loved the concept, and so did the hundreds of residents who turned out for performances that summer.
All that communal singing inspired Huber to think of an even bigger way that music could lift the city. Off he went again to the mayor's office with his next big idea: a municipal symphony orchestra. The mayor liked that one, too.
And so it happened that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the first American orchestra launched and funded entirely by taxpayers, debuted on Feb. 11, 1916, at the Lyric Opera House. On Feb. 11, 100 years to the day, the BSO with celebrate its centennial with a concert at its longtime home, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
The conductor a century ago was Gustav Strube, head of the harmony department at Peabody. The orchestra, with Huber as manager, sported 54 musicians who were recruited, The Baltimore Sun reported at the time, "from jazz bands, theater orchestras, the Peabody faculty, brass bands and players in musical sections of fraternal societies."
W. Edwin Moffet, a bass player who went on to play in the ensemble for 32 years, was one of them.
"Because Strube knew music, the instruments and the capabilities of musicians … we didn't have much trouble getting ourselves ready," Moffet wrote for The Sun in 1952. "The long-awaited first concert … originally was intended for Albaugh's [Lyceum] Theater on North Charles Street, but the ticket sale was so large that it had to be moved to the larger hall. Even then, there was standing room only."
The first folks to express that demand stretched in a line four blocks waiting for a ticket agency office to open. (Prices for the first concert ranged from 15 cents to $1.)
With soloist Mabel Garrison, a Baltimore-born soprano from the Metropolitan Opera, the BSO served up a colorful repertoire for that inaugural audience: Beethoven's Symphony No. 8, a Mozart aria, a tone poem by Saint-Saens, an aria by Delibes and, to close, the overture from Wagner's "Tannhauser."
The listeners, The Sun reported, were "bricklayers, plasterers, clerks, taxi chauffeurs, police [and] department store employees, augmented by persons of wealth." This mix of citizenry "filled every available inch of space in the great music hall, standing many rows deep at the back … and overflowing into the aisles of the balcony."
As for the music-making, "the men played with real enthusiasm and a delightful freedom," wrote Sun reviewer John Oldmixon Lambdin. He suggested that "it is not too much to believe that in the course of time, an orchestra that will take its place with the most important organizations in the country will result from the beginning that was made at the Lyric last night."
The first year's budget for the orchestra was $6,000. (Today's BSO has an annual operating budget of about $27.5 million.)
The orchestra's 10th anniversary celebration, which featured the identical program from 1916 and the same soprano soloist, generated what was said to be the largest audience ever to hear the orchestra. The crowd included 800 standees.
Back in 1916, boys from the Musical Settlement School had been taken to the BSO's debut concert by the superintendent, Lily Bartholomay. "And now several of those very children will be playing in the anniversary concert," she told The Sun.
That they had grown up to be professional musicians pleased Bartholomay, but she said it was more important that the other children from a decade earlier were "still following up and attending the Baltimore concerts. This music means a very great deal in their lives now, when there are difficulties to overcome and problems to solve and babies to rear."
The 30th anniversary of the BSO in 1946 attracted only enough people to fill two-thirds of the Lyric. Three of the original players were still in orchestra. The now-79-year-old Strube returned to conduct part of the program. Garrison was once again present — as an audience member in a box seat.
And "for the first time in the history of symphonic music at the Lyric," The Sun reported, "Negroes occupied orchestra[-level] seats." (An African-American would not sit onstage with the rest of the players until trumpeter Wilmer Wise joined the orchestra in 1965.)
By the time of that 30th anniversary, the BSO was no longer a city-funded institution. That had changed in 1942, when relations between longtime manager Huber and the players deteriorated, leading to the canceling of concerts.
Performances resumed later that year under a new structure proposed by Peabody director Reginald Stewart, who served as music director for the first decade of the reorganized orchestra. This approach counted on private donations, public dollars and ticket sales, a model that lasts to this day.
Periodically, the orchestra dusted off the 1916 program and reprised all or part of it to salute anniversaries, including the 60th at the Lyric, conducted by Sergiu Comissiona; and the 75th, conducted by David Zinman at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, which opened a few blocks away in 1982 and remains home base.
On Thursday, the BSO will hit its century mark with music director Marin Alsop leading such colorful works as Ravel's "Bolero" and, with Joshua Bell as soloist, a suite from Bernstein's "West Side Story" for violin and orchestra. Also scheduled: a techno-filled piece by Mason Bates and the premiere of Kristin Kuster's "MOXIE," the first of several BSO Centennial Commissions.
If the people who crammed the Lyric 100 years ago wouldn't recognize a single item on Thursday's program at the Meyerhoff, they would surely share in the celebratory spirit — and the champagne the BSO will offer everyone in attendance to toast this milestone concert.
Major chapters in the BSO's history since 1916
Except for a walkout by male players in 1937 resistant to admitting women in the orchestra (the men lost), the major cause of unrest during the BSO's first 100 years has been compensation. Despite all the praise for their musical quality, the players frequently faced roadblocks when trying to get salaries in line with the country's other major orchestras.
Outlined in BSO player Michael Lisicky's recently published book, "Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: A Century of Sound," there was a four-week strike in 1968, followed by a 10-week one in 1971.
A lockout that started in the fall of 1981 extended into January. A 22-week strike, from September 1988 to February 1989, found visiting actor Ed Asner joining players on a picket line with a placard that read: "No to third-class treatment of a world-class orchestra."
Two great homes
Most orchestras are fortunate to have one good concert hall to perform in regularly. The BSO has two.
After six decades of sharing the Lyric Opera House, the BSO got its own home in 1982. Named for the man whose money and persuasion made it possible, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall remains a satisfying venue for acoustics and sight lines.
In 2005, the BSO opened the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, becoming a lead tenant in a state-of-the-art facility. The hall gave the orchestra a new and needed market for audiences and fundraising.
The BSO enjoyed a significant boost to morale and reputation from touring. In 1981, on its first European tour with music director Sergiu Comissiona, the BSO became the first American orchestra to perform in East Germany.
In 1987, with music director David Zinman, the BSO scored a triumph when it ventured into the Soviet Union. "It got so dire for the orchestra — in Moscow, they had half the hotel rooms we were promised, and some had no electricity — that we talked about not playing," says Laurie Sokoloff, the orchestra's piccolo player since 1969. But the concerts went on, "and the audience went absolutely nuts," Sokoloff says.
With Zinman, the BSO made popular trips to Asia in the 1990s. Music director Yuri Temirkanov led equally successful tours to Europe (2001) and Japan (2002).
In 2005, looking for a successor to Temirkanov, management and the board settled quickly on Marin Alsop, who would become the first woman to helm a major-budget, 52-week American orchestra. But the search process marginalized the orchestra, and the players publicly balked. That set off messy publicity that would have caused some conductors to walk away. Alsop accepted the post and the challenge.
After starting her tenure in 2007, she and the musicians got over the awkwardnes and developed a rapport that has generated quality music-making and a flurry of imaginative initiatives, among them the OrchKids educational project.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this story.