A Baltimore music critic, 1985-90: Call it the growth years


WHEN I BEGAN as music critic of The Evening Sun, Davi Zinman was in his first year as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, an institution that dominated the local music scene but faced a period of uncertainty.

That was five years ago, and as I leave this job, the future of the city's orchestra looks bright. And though the BSO is still a formidable presence in the city's music community,it's no longer the only game in town.

Even if a half-decade is a short time to look back on, there has been proliferation and change in music and arts in Baltimore.

Zinman took over a good orchestra that had stopped growing under Sergiu Comissiona, the conductor who had shepherded the BSO through a crucial term of development during his 15-year tenure. In five years, Zinman has made a marked difference in the BSO, enlarging its repertoire and improving its ability to play well consistently.

The BSO has moved up another notch under Zinman, from a good to a very good orchestra.

Now that Zinman is signed through the 1993-94 season, the BSO is one of the more exciting orchestras in the country, poised to make an impression on the national music scene like it never has in its history.

The BSO faced an accumulated deficit that was more than $2 million in 1985, and growing. The orchestra mounted a surprisingly swift endowment campaign that will net a $40-million endowment when pledges are paid off in a few years.

If the BSO can boost its annual giving like it wants to, the days of financial uncertainty appear to be over.

Along the way, the success of the BSO has been tempered by its struggle with its institutional arrogance.

The people of Maryland, subscribers and taxpayers, have been generous to the orchestra. The BSO has received a large amount of financial support from the state and local governments, but its attitude concerning even a basic public accountability was so dismal the orchestra did not even publish a rudimentary financial statement.

That attitude has changed, and so has the symphony board's distant relationship with its musicians, which had fostered a series of adversarial labor negotiations that culminated in a series of strikes, the latest of which nearly swallowed the 1988-89 season.

The BSO and the musicians now sit down regularly in a group called the Committee for the Future, a no-holds-barred exchange that is making major progress toward building bridges of cooperation between the players and the board, according to reports from both sides.

But the BSO is not the only success story any more. The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra was struggling through its second season at Gilman School in 1985, under its energetic music director, Anne Harrigan. Today, after several expansions, the BCO packs the 1,000-seat Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College and is making a real contribution to the city's cultural life.

And Tom Hall has taken the Choral Arts Society to new heights, especially with his ongoing series of Haydn masses, which have provided many a satisfying afternoon of music. Edward Polochick founded the Concert Artists of Baltimore, a new hybrid of an orchestra-choral organization.

Peabody Conservatory was on life support from Johns Hopkins University five years ago, rebuilding its former prestige but not making much progress toward self-sufficiency.

Today, after a threatening period brought on by rumblings from Hopkins that it would cut off aid, the conservatory has just met a $15-million fund-raising deadline, and a plan designed by Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg seems likely not only to save the school, but to put it on sound financial footing.

There has been a surge in chamber music in the city, once the province of only the Shriver Hall Concert Series and the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore. Now chamber music series have sprung up everywhere, at museums, churches, even Edgar Allan Poe's burial place.

A reciprocal agreement between the music unions of Baltimore and Washington has meant a free exchange between the cities' orchestral players. The Baltimore Opera, long chained to the BSO in terms of scheduling, is now free to hire its own orchestra at no discernible drop-off in quality. The Baltimore Opera Orchestra is essentially a new orchestra for the city.

Not all has been rosy, of course. The Baltimore Opera, which has spent five years digging out of earlier financial problems, is in trouble again, having canceled its production of "Tristan und Isolde" this season.

Many thought WJHU, the grand Hopkins foray into classical music radio, would blow out its competition, the long-entrenched WBJC. Today WJHU is playing jazz and WBJC is stronger than ever.

Ethel's Place and Operetta Renaissance are failures that stand as testament that new ideas, even if they're good ones, don't always find a market in Baltimore. The Fishmarket stands as evidence that poor ideas don't either.

I've had the privilege of reporting on all this for five years, and as I leave the city I'll take fond memories and optimistic hopes for music in Baltimore.

It's been a pleasure sharing it with you.

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