There's something even newer than usual about the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's new season, which opens Sept. 11 with a gala concert.
Patrons will walk on newly laid carpeting at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and take their places on seats that have just had their covers and insides replaced for the first time since the venue opened in 1982 — replacements long overdue. Folks in the balcony will find handrails along the center aisle, also for the first time; their absence caused a lot of grabbing onto seatbacks for leverage, leaving quite a grimy trail over 28 years.
This interior makeover, the final stage in a yearlong, $5 million upgrade that started last year and also included a new roof and air-handling units, parallels the institutional makeover that has been going on for some time. There's a strong sense of a clean slate as the season is about to start.
"I hope we have passed the worst of times," says Marin Alsop, who is entering her fourth season as BSO music director. "I think we're building a foundation for the orchestra that will last a long time."
The BSO seems to be holding its own against the persistent recession. A balanced budget is expected for the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31 (pending the final audit). "A lot of the work we did to reduce costs has paid off, but there is still work to be done," says Paul Meecham, the BSO's president and CEO.
Given the painful financial austerity at the organization, some eyebrows might be raised over the expenditure on the fresh floor covering and the top-quality mohair for seat cushions (original colors have been maintained).
"Part of Joseph Meyerhoff's original vision was to set aside money for capital refurbishment," Meecham says. "The agreement signed by Joseph Meyerhoff and the symphony very clearly specified what things this fund can pay for. This is not a pressure on the budget."
A spiffed-up concert hall seems doubly appropriate for a season that boasts lots of music that will be new to BSO audiences. There will be regional premieres of works by Osvaldo Golijov and Roberto Sierra, two major contemporary composers who deserve more attention locally.
Among the notable regional premieres will be "Icarus at the Edge of Time," a multimedia work by Baltimore-born Philip Glass, inspired by Brian Greene's recent children's book that reimagines the Greek legend of the young man who flew too close to the sun. "It's all about black holes; it's kind of cool," says Alsop, who conducted the European premiere of the piece over the summer.
John Adams' "Dr. Atomic" symphony, based on his recent opera about the creation of the atom bomb, will also get its first BSO performance. "I have a lot of time for John Adams, as you know," Alsop says, "and this is a fantastic piece."
The season also offers the world premiere of a work by David Rimelis that will showcase students from the BSO's path-breaking OrchKids project at a Baltimore elementary school. Students will get to perform alongside the orchestra.
There will be plenty of familiar fare over the next 10 months, too, as well as what might be called the oddly familiar — works by Beethoven, Schumann and Smetana tweaked by Mahler, who controversially re-orchestrated other composers' music in an effort to improve clarity of texture or expressive impact of the original scores. Among those scores is Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, which the BSO will take to Carnegie Hall in November.
"This gives a very different twist on Mahler," Meecham says. "It's the first time for [the BSO] to perform his touch-ups."
For the first subscription series program of the season (Sept. 24-25), Alsop has paired Mahler's Symphony No. 7 with a rarely performed arrangement Mahler made of pieces by Bach and premiered with the New York Philharmonic in 1910.
All the Mahler items on the schedule, including his profound "Das Lied von der Erde" and the first movement from his unfinished Symphony No. 10, reflect the BSO's observance of the composer's dual anniversaries this season: his birth in 1860 and death in 1911.
Mahler's personal life will get attention, too, during an unusual concert on the Alsop-initiated "Off the Cuff" series, a series that has proven so popular in Baltimore that it will be added to the BSO's lineup at its second home, Strathmore, in Montgomery County.
This Mahlerian "Cuff" program, called "Analyze This," will weave excerpts from the composer's music with a script featuring actors who will re-create the famous consultation he had with Sigmund Freud. "It will look in depth at their meeting and at Mahler's wife, Alma, too, since she is one of the reasons he went to see Freud," Meecham says. (Some of Alma Mahler's music will also be performed this season; her work as a composer has gained appreciation over the years.)
Schumann, a composer born too early for Freudian analysis, will receive closer inspection during another "Off the Cuff" presentation. "We'll have medical experts who will delve into his bipolar disorder, the manic swings," Meecham says. Musical excerpts will illustrate this examination of Schumann's mental state.
Such novel programs add yet more freshness to a season that also includes a rare excursion into full-length opera for the BSO — a semistaged version of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," featuring members of Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.
The BSO will start a new recording project for the Naxos label this season, devoted to the symphonies of Prokofiev, starting with No. 1 and No. 6. Those represent only a portion of the Russian repertoire that will spice the 2010-2011 schedule, which is also packed with a substantial dose of Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff. There's a sprinkling of Glinka and Tchaikovsky, too. The orchestra has deliberately reduced the amount of such fare since the Russian music-friendly tenure of previous music director Yuri Temirkanov.
"We had a moratorium on it for so long," Alsop says with a laugh. "We're not hiding it anymore."
One constant of Alsop's tenure has been an effort to connect with people outside the doors of the Meyerhoff. "Partnering with community is a big theme of everything we do," she says.
This season, the BSO starts an association with Mobtown Modern; orchestra members will perform in some concerts presented by this ambitious contemporary music organization. "We're really testing the waters," Alsop says, "to see if, by teaming up, we can both increase visibility and provide fresh experiences. There is an audience here interested in edgier repertoire."
It's too early to predict how close the BSO/Mobtown association becomes. "I could see that happening in the future," the conductor says, "But I'm keen on not being perceived as the large fish gobbling all the little fish. We just want to support the food chain."
This week's gala, like all those since Alsop's arrival, also reflects her outreaching tendencies. In addition to the headliner, stellar violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, there will be performances by Peabody Conservatory guitar students and D.C.-based flamenco dancers. The program, featuring music by Manuel de Falla and Heitor Villa-Lobos, is billed as a salute to National Hispanic Heritage Month.
Outreach of a different sort is in store Sept. 21, when "Rusty Musicians" — amateur players anxious to dig back into the orchestral scene — are welcomed to Meyerhoff Hall for to an evening of music-making alongside the BSO, with Alsop conducting. The "Rusty" concept was tried out last season at Strathmore with extraordinary success and will be repeated there this winter.
The 2010-2011 schedule is nothing if not eventful.
"It's a very demanding season, and a very rewarding one, potentially," says BSO principal flutist Emily Skala. "I can't wait."
If you go
The BSO offers a preview of the season, conducted by Marin Alsop and Ilyich Rivas, at 8 p.m. Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. The orchestra's season-opening gala will be at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets for the concert only are $50 and $75. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org. For information on gala tickets, which include pre- and post-performance activities, call 410-783-8054.