Music as a public service: This was the idea of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra when it was established in 1916 as the first fully municipal orchestra in the country.
Today, the BSO acquires a significant part of its funding through private donations, but its mission remains the same, and its new Symphony in the City series may rank among its best efforts to fulfill this role as public servant.
Launched in January of this year, Symphony in the City takes the BSO to different neighborhoods around Baltimore to offer concerts free of charge.
It is meaningful, too, that its two most recent concerts (held Friday at the New Psalmist Baptist Church and Wednesday at Morgan State University) highlighted, in part, the talents of black conductors, soloists and composers. While there is no shortage of the latter, a recent survey conducted by the League of American Orchestras found that roughly 3 percent of orchestral musicians are African-American — and it’s worth asking how well orchestras speak to cities that are, like Baltimore, majority black.
The last two Symphony in the City concerts, which were enthusiastically attended by mixed audiences, indicated that many Baltimoreans welcome the BSO’s efforts. And for good reason: These are joyful, unpretentious concerts that should set the tone for the entirety of the season’s programming.
Both concerts favored repertoire that put the expressive breadth of the BSO strings front and center. In Jessie Montgomery’s “Starburst,” a short, energetic work for string orchestra, the first violins glimmered frostily in their rapid staccato runs; not to be forgotten, the double basses, with their repeating chromatic motif toward the end of the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, were deliciously resonant. Occasional moments from the brass stole the show, as in Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Le caprice de Nannette.”
The year 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, which means that audiences — in Baltimore and elsewhere — will be hearing even more of Beethoven than they usually do. The previous week’s Symphony in the City concerts featured the work of five black composers, often infrequently performed by major orchestras: Montgomery, Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Price (arranged by William Grant Still) and Joseph Bologne; every other piece on the programs was written by Beethoven.
While bingeing on Beethoven upon his anniversary feels inevitable, one may wish that the Symphony in the City series had resisted the urge. The orchestra’s playing felt blander on these pieces. The less familiar works — while subject to the occasional rhythmic slip — carried more energy. There is an argument to be made, too, about the value of the live concert as a rare experience: It’s more difficult to find quality recordings of the works of Florence Price, for example, than Beethoven.
A notable exception was Wednesday’s performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, conducted by Jonathan Rush. Rush has a phenomenal sense of the dynamic architecture of a piece of music: Every note was shaped with intention. Many will recognize the allegretto from its overuse in the tragic moments of films, and it risks lugubriousness if taken too slowly. Under Rush’s direction, it became a defiant expression of hope, in keeping with Beethoven’s regard for the entire symphony as one of his “happiest products.”
Rush is a continually rising talent in the conducting world. He currently serves as the assistant conductor for the Chicago Sinfonietta, but has some roots in Baltimore, having studied at the Peabody Institute and served as a conducting fellow for the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra. He has a personable and relaxed manner with audiences and musicians alike, and can produce a mesmerizing, crisp sound from the orchestra. Hopefully coming seasons have more guest conductorships from Rush in store.
Venturing outside the tailored acoustics of the Meyerhoff has its risks. Friday’s and Wednesday’s concerts both featured violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins as a soloist, but the New Psalmist Baptist Church was not designed with acoustic instruments in mind. There, Hall-Tompkins’ sound on the Beethoven Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 was unfortunately swallowed by the space and the heavy breathing of the HVAC system. Throughout the concert, one struggled to hear the music.
Hall-Tompkins enjoyed a far better space on Wednesday at Morgan State’s Murphy Fine Arts Center, where she delivered a graceful performance of Joseph Bologne’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Bologne, a contemporary of Mozart, is a notable historical figure: He is among the first well-known composers of Western classical music who was also of African descent. But Hall-Tompkins’ performance makes the case that we should hear a lot more of Bologne’s music simply for its beauty.
In the wake of the last tumultuous year, the future of the BSO remains murky. Its financial prospects are in flux, and just Wednesday, the orchestra announced that Marin Alsop will step down as music director after the 2020-2021 season. Changes are in store for the BSO, but the Symphony in the City series suggests that many of them could be good ones.
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for The Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions. Nonemaker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.