The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra poured the last of the summer wine Friday night, to the familiar strains of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. This finale of the first Summer Wine and MusicFest offered one more geographic focus - the Americas - to round out earlier explorations of French, Italian and Spanish sounds and sips.
As an exercise in armchair traveling, Friday's event at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, like the earlier ones, offered pleasant diversions. Too bad there weren't more passengers.
The whole festival played to modest, if appreciative, audiences. Even adding in comp tickets (a perk for sponsors and other BSO friends), attendance averaged only around half a house. From early reports, ticket sales declined about 35 percent from 2003 (when 51 percent of the house was sold on average), a downturn that should worry board members already faced with worrisome financial trends.
This year's novel addition to the orchestra's annual summer season at Meyerhoff - wine tastings and music from wine-producing countries - is the first high-profile project guided by controversial new BSO president James Glicker and his marketing team. So the results can't help but gain extra scrutiny, raise extra questions.
Although the wine gambit didn't light much of a fire at the box office (higher ticket prices over 2003 may account for some of the dampening), it did result in some lively programming.
Friday's concert was most notable for the inclusion of a major work by eminent 20th-century Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. His Variaciones concertantes gets considerable traction from a gloomy cello theme that gradually expands in mood and color, yielding a dynamic orchestral showpiece.
Marin Alsop conducted with her usual thoroughness, though the performance sounded a little unfinished around the edges, a little low on heat. The many solo players within the ensemble did compelling work.
Copland's Appalachian Spring, in its chamber orchestra version, could have used more distinctive shaping from Alsop; the music stayed mainly on the page, missing the almost spiritual dimension behind the notes. But, again, several soloists excelled, among them clarinetist John Weigand and flutist Emily Skala (her gentle diminuendo at the end was magical).
Jon Kimura Parker, the evening's excellent guest pianist, steered a steady, bravura course between an all-out classical and all-out jazz approach to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, presented here in its lean, original dance band orchestration (always preferable to the subsequent, souped-up version). Alsop and the rest of the gang provided a taut partnership.
The chamber music portion of the evening ignored the Americas theme and settled on Dvorak's E-flat Piano Quartet. Parker offered great finesse and poetry; violinist Qing Li, violist Mary Woehr and cellist Bo Li took a little while to settle into the groove, but soon poured on the lyrical passion.
Although the wine and music theme couldn't be pursued too many years without getting redundant - at least libation-wise - the marketing gimmick might be worth trying again in 2005. It's certainly one way to keep an audience feeling good (or, perhaps, feeling no pain).
But the ultimate high in any summer festival ought to be a musical one. In its search for a hot-selling product, the BSO might want to look again at how to unite the festival musically. The most obvious path, tried and true, is composer-centricity.
At the 2003 fest, an all-Mozart night was the biggest draw. A totally Mozart festival wouldn't be very original, but a Mozart/Haydn celebration could be. Even a Beethoven festival could be, perhaps centered around all the piano concertos or (stealing a page from the National Symphony) the fascinating Mahler editions of the symphonies. What about a Three B's Festival? Bach, Beethoven and Brahms should be box office boffo. And there's always - stifle that groan - Tchaikovsky, who can't help but sell.
Maybe it should be a festival of discovery, aimed at expanding horizons with unfamiliar, but audience-friendly works, or with emphasis on emerging, stars-of-tomorrow soloists.
Whatever we get next summer, I hope someone will take advantage of opportunities for audience development. Such opportunities were missed this time to build on relationships established at the wine bar.
From the very first night of the festival, it was obvious that many people there were not longtime classical concert-goers; applause between movements was the giveaway. The musicians onstage invariably looked uncomfortable during those moments. Next time, someone should get up and talk good-naturedly about the traditions about applause, or anything else that might help ease people into the classical concert experience.
For that matter, this summer's newcomers should have been given pep talks on checking out the action during the approaching regular season. Gaining a year-round attendance boost would really make things festive for the BSO.