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Good year for the Peabody, economic woes for symphony and Baltimore Opera


The year about to end was not a particularly bright one for music. Nothing dramatic happened, but there were strong signs that the poor economy affecting the nation generally was also having an effect on the classical music world.

The Baltimore Opera Company announced that a nearly $1 million deficit might force it to declare bankruptcy; the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra canceled its much anticipated spring 1992 tour of Europe for funding reasons; and the Peabody Conservatory, one of the nation's two oldest schools of music, narrowly escaped extinction.

If the year could be described in musical terms it could be called an andante -- nothing so dramatic as either an allegro or an adagio -- inquieto. And things will probably get worse -- maybe much worse -- before they get better.

Outside Baltimore the American musical world suffered two major losses: the deaths -- within weeks of each other this past fall -- of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. Copland's death at the age 90 was the easier to take. The composer of "Appalachian Spring" had led a completely fulfilled life and he had been in increasingly poor health for the past 10 years.

Bernstein's death at 72 was another matter. Though he was the most brilliant American conductor ever and though the best of his music from "On the Town," "Candide" and "West Side Story" will last as long as men have ears, there was always something unfulfilled about the self-destructive Bernstein, whose death was essentially caused by his compulsive cigarette smoking. He was much more talented than Copland had been and one wanted Bernstein to have accomplished more. Although his life gave so much to be grateful for, its end made one regretful.

The biggest piece of bad news locally was the financial troubles of the Baltimore Opera Company. The problem, general director Michael Harrison said, was that the BOC tried to upgrade quality while its fund raising fell behind expectations. The company announced last October that its $840,000 deficit might cause it to close. Although it narrowly averted bankruptcy last week, the idea that a major arts institution was so close to dissolution was chilling. Even before the BOC asked the public to rescue it, there were signs as early as last spring that the company was in deep distress. The clearest was a numbingly mediocre production of Verdi's "Otello." Early in the second act, the director inexplicably kept the child choristers, who sing a hymn of praise to Desdemona, offstage and made the heroine mime accepting their gifts of flowers. This ludicrous moment became a pathetic one when one learned later that the children were kept offstage because the company could not afford costumes for them. It did not help matters that there was never any chemistry between George Gray, the Otello, and Carole Neblett, the Desdemona, and that Gray never made the title character's descent into madness the terrifying thing it should be.

Even so well-run and well-endowed an operation as the Baltimore Symphony was not left unmarked by economic hard (( times. Less than two weeks ago the orchestra announced that it was canceling the European tour scheduled for 1992 because of fund-raising difficulties and because asking the state for money when social services were being cut seemed inappropriate.

One cannot argue with those reasons. But one cannot help but be troubled because the time is ripe for another tour of Europe and the orchestra needs it. After the fanfares that accompanied the orchestra's trips to Leningrad and Moscow in 1987 came a series of solid successes: tours of the West Coast (1988), East Coast (1989), Midwest (1990) and the orchestra's first Grammy award (1990). The orchestra was ready for another giant step forward.

That the orchestra could use such an infusion of prestige wademonstrated early in the year when it announced the roster of guest conductors for this 75th anniversary season: The list made it clear the BSO still can't attract conductors of the stature that regularly visit the National Symphony in Washington. Another trip to Europe might have changed all that. Momentum is a precious thing and one hopes that this tour cancellation does not cost the BSO too much of it.

It turned out to be quite a good year for the Peabody Institute, which had been threatened with extinction because of funding difficulties. The venerable conservatory was finally saved last fall by the combined efforts (and the money) of the state, of generous individuals like Eric Friedheim and Ruth Rosenberg and the Johns Hopkins University.

It couldn't have hurt matters that the school had a better summer than the Orioles -- better, in fact, than any other American school of music. Peabody graduate Kevin Kenner finished third in the Tchaikovsky piano competition and took the top prize awarded at the Chopin. Another Peabody pianist Stephen Prutsman was also among the finalists at the Tchaikovsky.

And it was Peabody that was responsible for one of the two great vocal productions of the year -- a stunning "Turn of the Screw" in which the conservatory's Roger Brunyate worked his usual magic upon Benjamim Britten's music.

The other memorable production was the extraordinary performance of Berlioz' "The Damnation of Faust" in November given by the BSO, its music director, David Zinman, and several fine soloists. In terms of precision, brilliance and ardor, Zinman and the orchestra reached a new level.

Another outstanding BSO event was the performance of Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor by Nelson Freire earlier ** this month. Freire's was the most tender and poetic Schumann concerto this listener had heard since the incomparable Guiomar Novaes played it with the New York Philharmonic 33 years ago.

Other wonderful musical experiences included a recent Goucher College recital by the young violist Paul Neubauer, who demonstrated that he is the Prince Charming to that Cinderella of instruments; a Shriver Hall concert by Faith Esham, a young soprano who makes familiar music seem brand-new; and a recital in the Candlelight Series at Columbia by the Arditti String Quartet, who made "difficult" new pieces seem as accessible and as beautiful as familiar older ones.

Of individual performances, a listener always remembers more easily the ones he liked. One exception to that rule was pianist Andre Watts' performance of Saint-Saens' G-minor Concerto with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra at a gala concert early this year that honored Leon Fleisher for his 30 years of teaching at Peabody.

To these ears, Watts' playing was tastelessly loud and vulgar. But the audience loved it and the avalanche of letters to the editor was almost as deafening as Watts' playing. The most polite of those letters demanded nothing less than the resignation of this writer, and Watts himself later suggested that the writer was incapable of enjoying himself.

That came as something of a surprise to this listener, who thought he had enjoyed other Watts performances of other composers over the years. But pianists are paid to play and critics are paid to express opinions.

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