Mysteries of the symphony orchestra solved Answers to questions about clouds, frogs, money, selections, bookings..


EVER WONDER why the rear corners of the Meyerhof Symphony Hall stage are now open during concerts or why the concertmaster sometimes stays seated when the conductor shakes his hand or how Baltimore Symphony Orchestra members are hired?

The 75th birthday of the BSO celebrated at a 7:30 p.m. concert tonight is a good excuse to answer some questions patrons may have about the BSO. Answers include things like clouds, shuffling feet, Saranwrap, 18 phone calls between two people in 30 hours . . . and frogs.

The answers came from Susan Anderson, BSO operations manager; Patricia Purcell, director of development and community affairs; Miryam Yardumian, music administrator; Mark Van Oss, consulting marketing director; Janet E. Bedell, publications manager, Louise J. Miller, public relations aide; John Gidwitz, executive director, and David Zinman, music director.

Here we go:

Question: What are those 18 brown discs hanging by chains from the ceiling over the orchestra?

Answer: Those are called clouds, acoustic reflectors that can be tilted or moved up and down so the music is properly dispersed and heard. They were adjusted mostly recently after music director David Zinman arrived in 1985. Sound bounces the way light does. So, among other tests, the acousticians covered the discs with Saranwrap and shined light at them to see where light was reflected. They adjusted the disc positions accordingly.

Q: Why can't patrons in the front of the orchestra see the brass and percussion instruments as they used to a few years ago?

A: Sergiu Comissiona, the BSO's conductor when the hall opened in 1982, wanted the musicians on risers, in European style. After two years, he decided the American style of playing on a flat surface produced a better sound for the audience. That way, for example, the trombone sounds from the rear could be scattered and wouldn't blare out over the strings and drown out things.

Q: What are those 40 big white screws in the ceiling?

A: They are stationary sound deflectors that resemble the built-in bric-a-brac in old halls used to scatter sound and prevent echoes. In the same way, the "screws" break up sound waves so people can hear the music better.

Q: Is anyone around who was at the first BSO concert Feb. 11, 1916?

A: Yes, at least one venerable fan and major benefactor, Mrs. Ruth Rosenberg, 91 and widow of Henry Rosenberg Sr. She was 16 at the first concert and is honorary chair of tonight's repeat show 75 years later. Her health makes her appearance tonight uncertain.

Q: Why are those eight new wooden cabinets at the sides of the stage back of the violins and the basses?

A: For the players. The Meyerhoff stage is known by musicians as a very loud, resonant stage. The "cabinets" are simply sound defusers along the curved solid walls to break up the sound waves and quiet things for the players. The audience can't hear the difference.

Q: Why are the stage panels open at the rear corners? It's something new and looks ugly.

A: Recording engineers discovered last fall that shoving the movable rear wall back a foot and tilting side pieces vents the noise and presents the orchestra's sound better to both players and audience. Now it's done for concerts also. The BSO is figuring how to make it prettier.

Q: Is the concertmaster being rude when he doesn't rise sometimes as the conductor shakes his hand?

A: No, he is being polite. After several entrances and exits, the conductor may again shake the hand of the concertmaster, always the principal violinist. When the fiddler doesn't rise, that means he wants to honor the conductor on behalf of the players, starting a round of applause for the leader of the band.

Q: Violinists applaud soloists by waving their bows. Other musicians sometimes don't do anything. Why not?

A: They may be doing something you don't notice. In a time-honored tradition, many members applaud by stamping or shuffling their feet, a practice probably started because their hands were full of their instruments.

Q: Will the BSO tour out of state this season?

A: One day. On Monday, March 4, the BSO and pianist Richard Goode play Carnegie Hall, New York, during its 100th season. The program: Harbison's "New York," a New York premiere; Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 14 and Stravinsky's "Petrouchka." Seats, $12-$45, are still available. Call (212) 247-7800.

Q: What competes with music in Zinman's office?

A: Frogs -- maybe "1,000" toys, statues, stuffed amphibians, pictures on the wall, hanging from the ceiling, frogs everywhere. When he was hired here, Zinman was asked what he collected. He said nothing, but if he did it would be bad art like frogs from Tijuana. That and one gift frog started the deluge from friends that continues to this day. "I buy them myself too . . . only the most terrible kitsch things."

Q: Who was the first black musician to appear with the BSO?

A: One of the first, if not the first, was A. Jack Thomas, a composer and conductor. He led the BSO in a concert Jan. 25, 1946, at Douglass High School. Since The Lyric Theater was segregated, he couldn't conduct there. There are three black musicians among the 97 members now.

Q: How does the BSO musicians' pay rank among orchestras in the country?

A: It is 14th in base salary among 19 orchestras ranked by their 52-week or near 52-week schedules, according to Joseph Turner, principal oboist, of the players' union. The order is Boston ($59,280), followed by Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York, all within pennies of each other; Los Angeles, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Detroit, Cincinnati, National Symphony, St. Louis ($50,700), Baltimore ($47,710), Dallas ($46,540), Atlanta, Houston, Indianapolis and Milwaukee ($39,597).

Q: What keeps some people away from the BSO?

A: "A lot of people think they have to know the music or dress up. They don't," says Yardumian. "Come and explore and enjoy the music. It relaxes you and at the same time it's a stimulant." By the way, the veterans -- 22,000 subscribers -- hear an average of eight concerts a year. And Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mozart can each fill the 2,471-seat hall.

Q: What happens when a scheduled soloist gets sick?

A: Things may get hectic. Yardumian, who books artists, tells this story: Last May, violinist Young Uck Kim got sick six days before his Thursday-Saturday dates here with cellist Yo Yo Ma in the "Brahms Double." An expert but not a name musician was needed to play with the cellist. Yardumian checked around to see who was available, settled on Pamela Frank, "a wonderful musician." But Frank was the maid of honor in a Carolina wedding. Yet at 22 she also wanted to debut here. Yardumian and Frank, who know each other, talked 18 times by phone in 30 hours. Frank's wedding party convinced her to go for the main chance here including an octet appearance later Saturday. Within hours she flew off for an engagement in Naples.

Q: How are artists booked?

A: Yardumian can book an artist with two phone calls in a week or it may take dozens of calls over months, even years because of endless scheduling conflicts. Zinman, the main man, looks for attractiveness for the audience, artistry and compatibility. His key support people are Gidwitz, who holds a musicology degree but doesn't consider himself an expert, and Yardumian, who knows music and many musicians. Zinman's popularity with artists helps her. "Many artists love working with David -- he's not an accompanist but a musical partner."

Q: How is the music picked?

A: Again, Zinman is the main decision-maker, assisted by Yardumian and Gidwitz. But visiting conductors, solo artists, BSO players, the board and others have ideas. Factors include patrons' and musicians' interests, artists' expertise, the need for balance in a program and in a season -- between traditional and modern, different schools and length and depth of pieces, a work's frequency in Baltimore, current events such as honoring a deceased personality, anniversaries, rehearsal time needed, emergency replacements and other factors.

Q: Who wrote the "Tapioca Song" that David Zinman sings from the stage?

A: Jonathan Jensen, BSO bass player, who also plays the piano for Saturday Casual Concerts and will compose the BSO's own musical birthday card for June 8-10.

Q: Which current member has played in the BSO the longest?

A: Clarinetist and saxophonist Gordon Miller has played since 1946. George Aranow, former English horn player and current personnel manager, has been with the BSO since 1949.

Q: Who are the newest members of the BSO?

A: Three permanent members were hired in the past few months, filling vacancies: first violinists Ellen Pendleton and Rebecca Stepleton and second violinist Ivan Stefanovic.

Q: How are they picked?

A: Typically 250-300 candidates apply for one slot. The process may take 6-9 months. Zinman is in on the semi-final and final

rounds, but a players' audition committee of 8-10 does early work by selecting from resumes between 40 and 80 who are invited in. Each is told to prepare specific music, like a concerto and three excerpts. They play 10 or 15 minutes behind a screen so the committee doesn't know even the player's gender (almost one third of BSO members are women). Three or four finalists then play without a screen. There are no interviews. The quality fTC of the music is the sole test. Some think this is too extreme, ignoring human factors. Others say the method is an antidote to friends hiring friends and cuts out extraneous matters.

Q: Are the relative locations of the BSO instruments ever changed?

A: Rarely. In a blue moon, conductors request the cellos and violas switch places. The biggest change came last season with English conductor Roger Norrington, an early-music man. Instead of the BSO's normal left to right lineup -- first violins, second violins, cellos and violas -- he made it first violins, cellos, violas and second violins, with basses behind the first violins on the left instead of behind the violas on the right.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad