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BSO at 100: Looking ahead to the next century

The BSO in rehearsal in 2014 with Marin Alsop conducting.
The BSO in rehearsal in 2014 with Marin Alsop conducting. (Richard Anderson / HANDOUT)

The 1941 edition of Kenneth S. Clark's "Baltimore: Cradle of Municipal Music" quotes from an editorial "in one of the local dailies" during the early 1930s: "It does not require a musician to proclaim how much the city would have missed in good music since 1916 had there been no Baltimore Symphony Orchestra."

That sentiment rings just as loud and true as the BSO marks its centenary this week. Will there be another century of great performances?

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The chances look promising. Given how dicey things were just a decade ago, when a $16 million deficit had piled up and morale within the institution could not have been much lower, this orchestra sure looks stalwart.

Then again, fighting for survival is part of its DNA. Newspaper archives turn up perennial concerns about finding sufficient support for the organization. A BSO advisory committee issued a pamphlet in the early 1960s that put the age-old question plainly: "Do We Want a Major Symphony Orchestra in Baltimore?"

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Somehow, though, this orchestra has always managed to hang on — through the Great Depression and the Great Recession; through acidic relations between musicians and management (or music directors). And through decades of competition from a much bigger, more famous ensemble that paid regular visits to the BSO's first home, the Lyric Opera House.

"Those were not the best of musical times for the Baltimore Symphony, which was certainly no match for the Philadelphia Orchestra," says Rheda Becker, who has performed as narrator in BSO concerts for 42 years. "But when Sergiu Comissiona arrived [as music director in 1969], it was just wonderful."

The BSO's history moved into high gear with Comissiona, whose leadership changed the character and aspirations of the ensemble. He was at the helm when the orchestra moved into Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in 1982, and when the BSO became a full-time, 52-week ensemble.

After Comissiona's "extraordinary music-making," says Laurie Sokoloff, who has played piccolo in the BSO for 46 years, came what she calls the "Camelot" period with music director David Zinman, who served from 1985 to 1998. "Because those years were so amazing, and the recordings we made with him are so fantastic," Sokoloff says.

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Zinman's successor, Yuri Temirkanov, the music director from 1999 to 2006, took the ensemble to an artistic peak of music-making from the heart and soul. ("Probably one of the greatest musicians alive today, and of the last hundred years," Sokoloff says of Temirkanov.) The BSO and its audiences were extremely fortunate to experience Temirkanov.

With Marin Alsop, starting in 2007, the BSO made an understandable, inevitable turn in focus and style. Alsop has shaken everything up — programming, concert formats. And she has reached out to touch the community in new ways, whether with events for amateur musicians or her signature educational enterprise, OrchKids, which now involves 1,000 inner-city schoolchildren.

"She is a great citizen of Baltimore, and that's very special," Becker says.

Alsop has also been a valuable force when it comes to this orchestra's primary reason for existence, music-making. Today's BSO delivers sturdy, spirited performances week after week.

That the BSO consistently plays above its pay scale doesn't mean there doesn't have to be a major, even heroic effort to boost salaries. Players had to fight too hard for raises over the decades, and had to see too many of them wiped out when budget crises necessitated give-backs.

The future for the BSO also needs to be more diverse onstage and in the audience. There's more that can be done with diversity of soloists and conductors, too, not to mention programming works by African-American composers. Then again, there's room for more music by any American composers, especially neglected midcentury ones and the original maverick, Charles Ives.

The BSO needs to embrace concert-streaming, live and archived, and be ready to jump on each new method of communication that comes along.

And there are still tweaks possible to the traditional concert experience: starting times; lighting (should the audience always be in the dark?); program length and order (the biggest work on a concert doesn't always have to be played last).

One onstage change at the BSO seems likely: Alsop initiated a project to design new, less-confining attire for BSO players; some of the results will be on display during Thursday's centennial concert.

A future without touring around and outside the country would be an awfully limited future for the BSO. The great travels the ensemble made in the past did more for its reputation and spirits than anything.

Of course, all of this takes money. So fundraising will inevitably be the endless quest for the BSO as it moves beyond the centennial. And one question will remain, forever prodding:

Do we want a major symphony orchestra in Baltimore?

"It is a very challenging time and a very exciting time," Becker says. "I'm very optimistic. I think we have a great future."

A lot of us hope she's right.

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