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5 things to know about the BSO's next season: women composers, the summer season's fate and more

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Marin Alsop said she hopes the upcoming season's focus on women composers and conductors will make way for more diversity in the orchestra's offerings.
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Marin Alsop said she hopes the upcoming season's focus on women composers and conductors will make way for more diversity in the orchestra's offerings. (Margot Schulman / Handout)

It’s been almost 100 years since women in the U.S. won the right to vote. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop figures it’s high time they finally ascended the podium.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced Tuesday an ambitious slate of concerts for the upcoming 2019-20 season that will highlight a group of artists traditionally under-represented in concert halls — female composers and conductors.

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”Gender equality is something that I’m passionate about, as you can imagine,” said Alsop, who in 2007 became the first woman to lead a major American orchestra when she became the BSO’s music director.

“We’re trying to move towards not just gender equality but representation by a wider and more diverse group of artists. I hope it’s just the start to us offering much broader and more inclusive seasons annually.”

Here are some highlights of this season, which Symphony president and CEO Peter T. Kjome said showcase “the remarkable versatility of this orchestra.” Find specifics about individual concerts and performances by visiting bsomusic.org.

1. You’ll see less gray hair on the podium.

The female guest conductors and composers featured next season not only include several rising stars but are remarkably diverse geographically.

The youngest, the German-born conductor Ruth Reinhardt, is 30. The veteran, the violinist and composer Chen Yi, 65, is Chinese. The remaining four living artists are in their 40s, which qualifies them as up-and-comers in a profession in which leaders often don’t hit their stride until their sixties. Guest conductors Carolyn Kuan and Xian Zhang are Chinese-American, composer Lera Auerbach was born in Russia and composer Anna Clyne grew up in Great Britain.

“These women are truly exceptional talents,” Alsop said. “They have all been having various degrees of success, but several also are still very early in their careers. It’s exciting to be on the front end by introducing them to our audiences.”

The upcoming season also will feature the work of two lesser-known pioneers: the 19th century German pianist and composer Fanny Mendelssohn (you may have heard of her famous brother, Felix) and the African-American composer Florence Price, who died in 1953.

2. The summer season for 2019 is still up in the air.

What music lovers won’t find in Tuesday’s announcement is any hint as to the fate of the summer season, though that’s normally not announced until later in the spring.*

The orchestra has made the news recently by proposing to cut its 52-week schedule to 40 weeks, citing losses of $16 million over the past decade. That plan would effectively eliminate a summer season and is vehemently opposed by the players union, which is in the midst of contract negotiations. The musicians claim that chopping off a quarter of the performance year would eventually demote the BSO from a world-class operation to a part-time, regional symphony.

Kjome said that the warm-weather season — if there is one — typically would not be unveiled “until much closer to the summer.”

Alsop declined to say whether she agrees with the proposed cuts. But she mentioned that her experience conducting symphonies around the globe has demonstrated the excellence of her Maryland orchestra.

“I travel the world, and the Baltimore Symphony has few rivals,” she said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the music-making the orchestra is doing currently. I am confident that both the musicians and the organization want what is best for the city and for the symphony. If the quality of what we have now in Baltimore were ever to diminish, that would be a very, very dark day.”

3. Alsop is leading a global movement.

Alsop will have lots of opportunities to refine her opinion of international orchestras; the so-called “Beethoven 2020 project” will send her abroad for much of the coming season from Brazil to New Zealand to Austria and South Africa. Alsop will lead nine orchestras on five continents in performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony between December 2019 and December 2020. The cornerstone is “All Together: A Global Ode to Joy” in which community members will reinterpret the Ninth Symphony’s famous final movement in response to today’s world.

The celebration was Alsop’s idea, she said, and is being launched in collaboration with Carnegie Hall. Some general costs are being covered by the New York venue, while each orchestra will pay the expenses associated with mounting the concert in their respective cities.

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“Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the most popular piece of classical music in the world,” she said. “At its core, it is about how tolerance and simple humanity can overcome strife. We will be reaching out to communities, such as the Maori people of New Zealand, who are usually left out of classical music conversations. We will be using the ‘Ode to Joy’ as a vehicle to unite cultures.”

The BSO’s performances of Beethoven’s Ninth will close the orchestra’s regular season the weekend of June 11-14, 2020. The Baltimore concerts will feature a translation of the “Ode” by the local rapper and musician Wordsmith (born Anthony Parker), a new arrangement of the spiritual, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and a newly commissioned work by Indian-American composer Reena Esmial.

“This is not going to be a typical performance of Beethoven’s Ninth,” Symphony vice president and general manager Tonya McBride Robles said.

4. Ticket prices won’t go up.

Subscriptions went on sale Tuesday, while single ticket sales will become available in August. Four-concert family series start at $48, symphony officials said, and six-concert subscription prices begin at $150.

Kjome said the orchestra’s attempts to contain admission fees has resulted in a surge of new audience members. Attendance during the first four months of the current season is 13.5 percent higher than it was during the same period in 2017-18, he said.

Not only is the cost of tickets not increasing next season, he said, but during the past year the baseline price for the least expensive tickets dropped from $35 to $25 for most performances.

In addition, the Passport Program provides what Kjome described as “virtually unlimited access” to concerts all year for $99 annually for adults aged 40 and younger. Under the Student Select initiative, students with a valid ID who pay an annual $35 fee receive free admission to most concerts, while the Young and Free plan provides children aged of 7 and 17 with a free ticket to some classical and pops concerts when accompanied by a paying adult.

As Kjome put it: “These are exciting programs that reduce economic barriers to concert attendance and enrich the lives of Baltimore families.”

5. Expect star power — in more ways than one.

Next season is full of star soloists. The acclaimed soprano Renee Fleming will headline the Symphony’s gala fundraiser while such in-demand pianists as Emanuel Ax and Evgeny Kissin will perform during the regular season.

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In addition, the season will mark the 30th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is operated in Baltimore and Greenbelt.* The concerts will be held April 23-26, 2020 and will showcase performances of composer Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” with images of photos taken from the orbiting telescope and a guest visit from a NASA official.

*Clarifications: This article has been updated to clarify that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s summer season is typically announced later in the spring. The article has also been updated to clarify that the Hubble Space Telescope is operated from Baltimore and Greenbelt.

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