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'What we were trained to do': Locked-out Baltimore Symphony musicians play holiday concert at Oregon Ridge

Thousands of people lined the undulating landscape of Oregon Ridge Park on Wednesday night to witness the annual concert involving Baltimore Symphony musicians to commemorate Independence Day.

Rain poured before the performance began, but it didn’t stop the festivities. People still set up their lawn chairs and blankets on the moist grass to witness what might be the last time these musicians — locked-out members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra — perform together as an ensemble for two months.

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“It’s incredibly heartwarming to see the support we’ve gotten from our patrons,” BSO violinist and Players Committee co-chair Greg Mulligan said.

A full orchestra of 77 musicians performed classic American pieces, such as John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “Semper Fidelis” and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s stirring “1812 Overture.”

The musicians’ focus was on putting on a great concert for the audience despite the recent upheaval surrounding the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

“What we’re doing tonight is what we were trained to do,” oboist Michael Lisicky said. “Our goal is not to be walking around the Meyerhoff with bullhorns … asking the governor to release our funds. We are trained musicians.”

On Wednesday, Gov. Larry Hogan announced that he would not be releasing $1.6 million in funding the General Assembly had voted to grant the financially struggling organization.

The annual concert of patriotic classics is a beloved, 41-year tradition, said percussionist Brian Prechtl, who helped organize this year’s event. The outdoor extravaganza usually is mounted by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and in previous years has gone by the name “The Star-Spangled Spectacular.”

However, this year, the event was part of the slate of summer concerts canceled in late May for financial reasons by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Peter Kjome, the BSO’s President and CEO, has said the organization has sustained $16 million in losses during the past decade.

But, Prechtl said five weeks ago, he woke up to a tweet from Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. asking whether the July 3 concert could be saved.

“At first it just seemed like wishful thinking because we realized just what a heavy lift it was,” Prechtl said Wednesday night. “But, we got together with [Baltimore County], and we talked to them about what we could bring to the table, which is fantastic music and a professional presentation.”

Prechtl said Baltimore County handled logistics, such as arranging parking, vendors, fireworks and a police presence. The musicians were responsible for anything pertaining to the music, from hanging lights to transporting the instruments to hiring the conductor. On the podium was Jacomo Bairos, a graduate of the Peabody Institute who recently conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra.

“It was my great honor and privilege to be here with these amazing musicians tonight,” Bairos said onstage during the concert, which was called the “Oregon Ridge Extravaganza” by some and the Independence Day Extravaganza” by others. “They are right here in your backyard.”

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The musicians are involved in contentious contract negotiations with BSO management. Most of the performers received their last paycheck for the summer June 14.

Prechtl said the scrapped summer concert series has cost many of the musicians nearly $20,000.

“We are scrambling. A lot of us are pretty hard-pressed to make ends meet,” Prechtl said. “It’s really devastating.”

Despite the uncertain outcome of the labor negotiations with the BSO, families gathered for the music, food trucks and fireworks — an event many consider a part of the family tradition.

Michael and Monika Butz, who are eight-year BSO subscribers, said they have been bringing their sons to the summer holiday concert for eight years and were worried they would have to find other plans for the holiday when BSO’s summer concert series was canceled.

“It would be very sad if the tradition and the symphony would not be able to do over the years. It’s been wonderful,” Monika Butz said.

Friends Jim Olin and Dave Bakkegard attended the concert to support family members who are Baltimore Symphony musicians. Olin’s wife plays the English horn, and Bakkegard’s daughter is a violinist.

In fact, Bakkegard himself is a BSO veteran who played the French horn with the organization for nearly 30 years, he said.

“I’m here 100% to support the musicians. I think it’s fantastic that they were able to organize this event without the management,” Olin said. “Oregon Ridge is very important, and the Fourth of July is a great concert.”

Unlike most years, when tickets cost $25, admission for this year’s concert was free, and the 5,000 available passes all were snapped up weeks ago. The musicians were paid a stipend from the New York-based Music Performance Trust Fund, Prechtl said, which has a mission of supporting free, high-quality live music.

The concert ended with a robust performance of “Stars and Stripes Forever” followed by flashing, thunderous fireworks. Signifying their gratification with the performance, the audience gave the Baltimore Symphony musicians a lengthy standing ovation. — perhaps their last until Sept. 9, when the fall season is scheduled to resume.

“That’s what art is all about. Communicating what you do with other people,” Olin said.

A rainbow appears after the rain moves out at Oregon Ridge Park hours before the scheduled concert and fireworks display. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)
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