In a rare public expression of frustration, music director Marin Alsop criticized aspects of the way the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is being run and hinted that her stint as the organization’s music director might end in two years when her contract expires.
“I’m nearing the end of my tenure here,” Alsop told a group of about 60 people gathered for a meeting Tuesday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
“I find this is a difficult institution to get air time in because we don’t talk about the art first. Nobody ever talks to me. Barely," she said. "There’s no place to actually say these things safely, so I’m going to say them here.”
Alsop made her comments during a meeting of a state work group that has been tasked with restoring the BSO to fiscal solvency after years of operating at a deficit that has totaled $16 million over the past decade. Many, but not all of the people in the room, were affiliated in some way with the orchestra as musicians, staff members, board members or donors.
The group had been listening to a presentation by Michael Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland and an expert at turning around troubled arts groups.
“We now have 2,000 African American kids and Hispanic kids playing musical instruments. But that’s not where the benefits stop."
BSO Director Marin Alsop
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When a symphony, theater company or ballet troupe finds itself in financial straits, saving money often takes precedence over creating innovative and exciting art, Kaiser said. He thinks that’s a serious mistake. Over time, the art becomes boring. Donors and audience members drop off. The downward spiral worsens.
“One of the challenges for arts organizations is that as they get more threatened financially, they tend to get more conservative artistically," Kaiser said. “The number one thing it takes to be a financially healthy arts organization is to create really amazing art.”
That’s when Alsop spoke up.
She said she’s proposed several innovative programs she believes have the potential to get widespread attention, unite the city and develop a new audience. But she said that even when initiatives get adopted, they don’t receive sufficient publicity and supportive programming to allow them to achieve their maximum impact.
For example, 2020 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Alsop will celebrate that milestone by leading nine orchestras on five continents (including the BSO) in performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in an initiative known as “A Global Ode to Joy.”
Those performances will feature a new translation of the “Ode” by the Baltimore rapper Wordsmith, along with a new work by Indian-American composer Reena Esmail and additional music from other Baltimore artists.
Alsop feels that could be much more than just a concert. It could be a way to help a struggling city find solace in a great piece of music. But that would require additional resources that so far, the project doesn’t have.
“This is a project that the whole city could get behind,” Alsop said. “It’s a project that it’s simple to get your mind around, and it’s a project where we could talk for a year about what brings people joy in Baltimore.”
The concerts are a partnership between the BSO and New York’s Carnegie Hall; the latter is providing educational materials.
“I don’t have a forum to share this with anyone so I’m sharing it now," Alsop said. "It’s in our brochures but no one reads our brochures.”
Alsop then discussed the OrchKids program she founded that provides free musical and academic instruction to students in six public schools located in economically-challenged neighborhoods.
“We now have 2,000 African American kids and Hispanic kids playing musical instruments,” Alsop said. "But that’s not where the benefits stop. Their families and their communities are predisposed to being open to this repertoire.
"We’ve made huge inroads but we haven’t monetized them yet. There are issues of transportation, issues of price point and issues of venue. But the pathway has been built. Somebody just needs to walk down it.”
Finally, Alsop said she thinks that the BSO missed an opportunity by failing to highlight her position on the podium in 2019, the 100th anniversary of passage of the 19th amendment granting U.S. women the right to vote.
“The Baltimore Symphony is the only major orchestra in the United States to have a woman as its leader, and we haven’t capitalized on that once," Alsop said. "I don’t know if it’s too late. I just think that’s something, especially in this #MeToo moment, that we could really have used.”
When stopped in the hallway outside the meeting, Alsop declined to elaborate on her plans once her contract expires in late 2021, or what she meant when she said she lacked a platform for expressing candid opinions. Nor would she comment on who she blames for the problems she identified.
She said the point she was trying to make is that the BSO already all has the tools in place that it needs to succeed.
After the meeting had adjourned, Peter Kjome, the BSO’s president and CEO, said the organization will attempt to address at least some of its music director’s concerns.
“One of the most important things we need to do is to look further ahead than just getting through this year,” Kjome said. “We hope we can do that with the Global Ode to Joy. We are excited about that project.”