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With abrupt summer cancellation, 'West Side Story' is the last BSO performance until fall

With abrupt summer cancellation, 'West Side Story' is the last BSO performance until fall
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians acknowledge one of numerous prolonged standing ovations, demonstrating the audience's support for the musicians following the news that the summer concert series would be canceled. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

With the sudden cancellation of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s summer season five weeks after its announcement, the upcoming run of “Movie with Orchestra: West Side Story” will be the last time the BSO performs until September.

Music director Marin Alsop will lead the orchestra in four days of shows that pair live performances of Leonard Bernstein’s score with screenings of the iconic 1961 film, adapted from the Broadway musical by Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright Arthur Laurents. Set in 1950s New York, “West Side Story” was inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It tells of the doomed love between Tony, who is white, and Maria, who is Puerto Rican; each are affiliated with rival street gangs.

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The program already held significance: Orchestras all over the country have used the 2018-2019 concert season to honor the centennial of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, whom Alsop credits as the inspiration for her career.

In addition to his compositions, international tours, and tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein made a mark through his educational efforts. From 1958 to 1972, he partnered with CBS to televise the Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts, which sought to educate the youngest members of the audience in appreciation of classical music. It was at one of these concerts that a then nine-year-old Alsop decided she wanted to be a conductor, as Alsop described in an interview with Classic FM. Decades later, Bernstein would become Alsop’s mentor.

Maestra Alsop has since made the “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story” one of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s trademark pieces, according to Brian Prechtl, BSO percussionist and co-chair of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians Players’ Committee. It was one of the pieces that the orchestra programmed during their summer 2018 tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland. “Bernstein was a musical giant precisely because he was able to bridge the classical music world with popular music forms of Broadway and movie music,” said Prechtl. “It is this ability to connect art [with] everyday people that is the goal of the Baltimore Symphony and its musicians.”

Now, these connections make “West Side Story” a particularly poignant send-off. It marks the first summer in roughly 50 years that will not see a performance by the BSO, according to research by Michael Lisicky, BSO oboist and author of “A Century of Sound,” which chronicles the 100-year history of the orchestra.

“The BSO made its first attempt at a summer season back in 1969,” said Lisicky. “It was only a nine-concert season, but it was a desire by then music director [Sergiu] Comissiona.” During his 15 years as music director, Comissiona made the BSO’s first recordings, worked to secure a permanent home (succeeding with the 1982 establishment of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall), and overall raised the quality of the orchestra from a regional group to an internationally reputable ensemble.

“The 52-week season was one of his many goals,” said Lisicky. “The last time the BSO was at the now proposed 40-week season was back in 1973.”

On May 30, the BSO management, led by BSO President and CEO Peter Kjome, and board, headed by chair Barbara Bozzuto, announced the cancelation of the upcoming summer season as part of a plan to reduce the symphony’s season from 52 to 40 weeks. The decision came after months of uncertainty over the organization’s finances; the BSO has lost more than $16 million over the past decade.

But the announcement has drawn bitter criticism from the BSO Musicians (an independently organized group made up of the orchestra’s performers), fans and donors. It was made just hours before the orchestra went onstage for a concert, without prior notification to the musicians and just days after the passage of HB 1404, a state bill that allocated an additional $3.2 million in funding to the BSO over the next two years.

“The cancelation [of the summer season] is disheartening in the short run but devastating to the future of the organization in the long run,” said Prechtl. “The management is disregarding nearly every stakeholder in the organization: the musicians, donors, legislators who created HB 1404 and most of all the patrons who bought tickets.”

Now, there is further uncertainty over whether Governor Larry Hogan will release the HB 1404 funds at all. Legislators along with the BSO Musicians and supporters have called upon the governor to release the $1.6 million for the first year of the funding, in the hope that the money will motivate BSO management to reverse their decision to cancel the summer season. Governor Hogan, however, has been known to hold allocated funds in reserve.

In the meantime, audiences will have to subsist on the music of Bernstein — and developing news from the BSO. “Look and listen for us this summer,” said Prechtl. “These destructive decisions will not silence our voice.”

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.

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