After years of neglect, the music of Samuel Barber will be all-pervasive in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual Summerfest. His relatively little-known Essay No. 2 will appear on a program with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, his still more obscure "Music for a Scene from Shelley" will be juxtaposed to Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto and his lush Rachmaninovlike Symphony No. 1 will be heard alongside the concise drypoint of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8.

An idealist might assume that BSO music director David Zinman has suddenly discovered the romantic virtues of one of America's most unfairly maligned composers; but a realist might come closer to the truth: Zinman and the orchestra have a contract to record these pieces for the Argo label this fall. Summerfest, which starts Thursday, is when they begin to get them into shape.

Because records reach wider audiences than concerts, what audiences hear in concert halls is increasingly determined by the recording schedules of orchestras. This is not a matter of greed. The record royalties of the Chicago Symphony, perhaps the most celebrated and most frequently recorded of America's orchestras, are only $25O,000, a tiny fraction of the orchestra's $32 million budget.

Records mean prestige, which in the competitive world of orchestras is even more important than money. (The Pittsburgh Symphony has a much larger endowment than Chicago's, but when was the last time the Pittsburgh Symphony sold out Carnegie Hall?) And the prestige of many well-received records means that an up-and-coming orchestra See JUMP TO COME, 00, Col. 0JUMP TO COME, from 1Xcan get better guest conductors as well as bigger audiences; it also means that it can get better tours. All of this adds up to -- in all likelihood -- becoming a better orchestra.

"Records are what put this orchestra on the map," says Robert H. Wilkins, who directs broadcasting and recording for the St. Louis Symphony. Fifteen years ago when the St. Louis Symphony began making records for the budget Vox label, reviews were admiring but condescending, Wilkins says. "The tone was, 'There appear to be some good things coming out of Missouri.' We don't hear that any more." Wilkins' orchestra now has an exclusive contract with the prestigious RCA Victor Red Seal label for 30 records over five years.

The BSO has not yet attained such success, but its activity in the recording studio in the recent past has increased its prestige that it is now possible to engage the most prominent guest conductors in the orchestra's history, says BSO executive director John Gidwitz. When the orchestra announces its guest conductors for the 1992-'93 season next spring, Gidwitz promises, the orchestra's increase in stature will be "very manifest."

But if records can spread the message that an orchestra is good, there is also the danger that the medium may become the message.

Some orchestra officials privately worry that public performances sometimes threaten -- in the words of one manager -- to become "little more than a way to fine-tune recording sessions." In Chicago, adds Chicago Symphony publicity director Joyce Idema, "we have inserts in the program that tell the audience 'Please be quiet' and 'Don't cough' because we do a lot of live recording. Some of the reaction has been, 'Why do we come to concerts? They're not supposed to be recording sessions.' "

And there have been programs that have come close to abusing audiences. Several years ago, when Lorin Maazel, then music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, prepared to record Prokofiev's complete music for "Romeo and Juliet" -- not the boiled-down, concertworthy suites -- he subjected three successive audiences to one act each of the music. (The piece may be wonderful when dancers are on the stage, but is a bore to hear in its entirety without them.)

Last season Montreal Symphony Orchestra audiences had to endure the stultifying longueurs of Debussy's opera "Pelleas et Melisande" so that London Records could add it to its operatic catalog. Back in his Rochester Philharmonic days, Zinman subjected audiences to Beethoven's less-than-scintillating music for the ballet "The Creatures of Prometheus."

And only a few years ago Deutsche Grammophon asked Leonard Bernstein to record filler with the New York Philharmonic for a disc devoted to Ives' Symphony No. 2. The irrepressible Bernstein leaned back just before he was to conduct one of the Ives potboilers and, in a stage whisper loud enough for all of Avery Fisher Hall to hear, announced: "This really is one of my least favorite pieces!"

The music of Barber, which has of late become very popular [see accompanying article], does not fit such a category. But recording it can scarcely be called a prestigious assignment. There is a pecking order among American orchestras; while the BSO makes records of standard repertory items such as Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" or Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique"

for a smaller label like Telarc, a giant such as London-Decca, the parent company of Argo for whom the BSO will record the Barber, already has orchestras like the Chicago Symphony or the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam available for such pieces.

"The question we ask ourselves when we talk to an orchestra about making records is, 'What would be mutually beneficial?' " says Lisa Altman, director of publicity for London Records. "We need to know what will be good for us and what will help establish a reputation for the orchestra."

Last year, Altman says, Herbert Blomstedt, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, proposed a cycle of the Brahms symphonies. "But we were in the midst of doing a cycle with Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw. We didn't think the market would bear yet another Brahms cycle and we struck a compromise by having Blomstedt and San Francisco record a disc of [less frequently played and recorded] Brahms choral works."

There was, however, no hesitation when Blomstedt suggested cycles of symphonies by Nielsen and Sibelius.

"Blomstedt already had a strong identity as a conductor of Scandinavian music and we felt that this was an area in which San Francisco could create a niche for itself," Altman says. "You don't want to pigeonhole a conductor and an orchestra, but you want them to do what they do best and still serve the market. Most successful orchestras and their music directors have strong identities. With the Chicago Symphony and Solti, it's Bruckner and Mahler; with the Montreal Symphony and Dutoit, it's French music. With Zinman and Baltimore, we wanted to capitalize upon and develop an emerging reputation for 20th century American music."

What do local audiences gain from records that increase the BSO's reputation with listeners who will never hear the orchestra in Meyerhoff Hall? According to David Zinman, it's simply that making records also makes a better orchestra.

"It develops a much more focused way of playing -- more attentive to detail and more accurate -- that spills over into regular concerts," the conductor says. "And recording means that the music becomes embedded in an orchestra's psyche. What we record becomes our flesh and blood."

About Summerfest . . .

All concerts begin at 7:30 p.m. in Meyerhoff Hall; live bands and dancing in the outdoor plaza follow each concert. Tickets are $12 ($20 for box seats). Call 783-8000.

July 11: David Zinman, conductor; Jeffrey Kahane, piano; Dominique LaBelle, soprano; Victoria Livengood, mezzo-soprano; Jeffrey Thomas, tenor; David Arnold, baritone; Baltimore Symphony Chorus. Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 and Choral Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra.

July 13: David Zinman, conductor; Karen Clift, soprano. Viennese Night.

July 16: David Zinman, conductor; Claude Frank, piano; Pamela Frank, violin. Beethoven's Romance No. 1 and No. 2, Rondo in B-flat major and Symphony No. 5; Barber's Essay No. 2.

July 18: David Zinman, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin. Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major and Symphony No. 8; Barber's Symphony No. 1.

July 24: David Zinman, conductor; Vladimir Feltsman, piano. Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, and Symphony No. 3; Barber's Essay No. 1.

July 27: David Zinman, conductor; Nelson Freire, piano. Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, and Symphony No. 7; Barber's "Music for a Scene from Shelley."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad