The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra got something more than a talented conductor when it selected a successor to founding music director Anne Harrigan in June.
Markand Thakar, mild-mannered professor for a great metropolitan conservatory and soft-spoken music director of a modest-sized orchestra in northeastern Minnesota, may turn out to be a classical music hero.
All right, hero is too strong a word, but, these days, anyone who can point to the sort of trend-bucking success that Thakar has generated seems more powerful than a speeding finale by Beethoven.
The New York-born Thakar, 49, has worked as an assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic and Colorado Symphony and served on the faculties at Penn State and Ohio University. Since the late 1990s, he has been co-director of the Peabody Conservatory's graduate conducting program.
Thakar hasn't had enough time to put his stamp on the BCO yet. This season's guest artists and programs, like the holiday-themed one he will lead tonight and Sunday at Second Presbyterian Church, were planned before the orchestra decided on a music director. (Each of the four finalists conducted a program last season.)
But "next season may be somewhat different," says BCO executive director Claire Braswell. As Thakar organizes the 2005-2006 lineup, he will be applying the experiences he has gained with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra after three years at that helm.
It's an experience that has caught the attention of an industry thwarted by declining, hard-to-excite audiences.
"We've long been interested in several aspects of their story," says Melinda Whiting, editor in chief of Symphony magazine, a publication of the American Symphony Orchestra League. A forthcoming article in the magazine will focus on the Duluth ensemble's "significant increases in audience and artistic interest," Whiting says.
When Thakar arrived, that orchestra was in the red and playing to 63 percent capacity of its 2,300-seat hall, the sort of dispiriting figure all too common nationally. (The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, on average, fills less than 70 percent of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.)
Today, the Duluth ensemble plays to an average of about 91 percent. Sold-out performances are hardly uncommon.
Many an American orchestra would just about kill to see a turnaround like that, let alone in three years. CEOs and consultants are working overtime all over the country to devise ways of reversing all the bad news.
"I'm being immodest here, but I have to say, I figured it out in Duluth," Thakar says. "We have gotten it done. We increased subscriptions more than 50 percent, even though the economy is tough up there, and there's a decreasing population." (Duluth's population is 87,000; Superior, Wis., which the orchestra also serves, is 27,000.)
What is the secret to this upbeat development? "It's simple in concept, maybe harder in practice," Thakar says. "You have to do marketing really well, you have to give people a reason why they should come once, and, once they're there, a reason to come back."
But that's what everybody tries to do, often at enormous expense and with considerable fanfare. What is driving Thakar's take on this philosophy?
"The answer isn't gimmicks, movies, speakers," he says. "It's about being moved by sounds. The more you can move people with sounds, the more they will come back. It's no sexier or more high-tech than that. It's like with a restaurant. The goal is to make food that tastes good, rewards the palate, gets people to come in. If you do that, they'll come back."
Thakar, a Fulbright Scholar with degrees from the Juilliard School, Columbia University and the Cincinnati Conservatory, honed his appreciation for music's potential to move listeners during two summers studying with Sergiu Celibidache.
This almost mystical Romanian conductor focused on the very essence of sound, the magical effect it can have on performers and listeners alike, even with the playing of single chord.
"What I learned from him," Thakar says, "is that the magical moment can, under the right circumstances, extend from the beginning of the first sound to the end of the last sound of a movement" in a symphony.
To entice more people to take a chance on being sonically moved, Thakar added his own spin to a tried-and-true marketing device. Where many ensembles build a program around a common theme, he built an entire season.
All seven classical programs played by the Duluth orchestra each season are linked. One hook was "Markand's Grand Tour," with works on each concert related by a national or geographic element. Cutesy titles like "French Kiss," "Fjord Explorer" and "The Czech's in the Mail" sweetened the bait.
Last season's thematic bond was "Seven Deadly Sins." Each program balanced a sinful item with a contrasting virtue. Envy and kindness, for example, were represented by works of Schumann and Brahms. William Grant Still's And They Lynched Him on a Tree had as its redemptive opposite Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
"It got people hooked," Thakar says. "People wondered, 'What will the symphony do next?'"
OK, we've got connective threads, clever program titles and expressive intensity. A lot of other orchestras could say the same. Don't you need even more inducement? Sure. And Thakar offered that, too.
"On the theory that people would like to come, but were reluctant to spend the money, we cut the price 50 percent for new subscribers," the conductor says. "It was a deal you couldn't pass up. We got hundreds of new subscribers every year - 580 the first year, 730 the second, over 600 the third."
The test, of course, is whether newcomers become repeat customers. "About half of our first-time subscribers renew for the next year," says Andrew Berry- hill, executive director of the Duluth orchestra. "The industry trend is 40 percent."
Subscriptions have "flattened out a little bit," Berryhill says. "We don't have a very big town. There's a finite number of people we can market to." (Single-tickets sales declined during the presidential election. "This was a swing state, and we just couldn't get anybody's attention," Berryhill says.)
But, overall, the orchestra is thriving. And the concept of thematically organized seasons looks like a solid tradition.
"We're very pleased with it," Berryhill says. "It's a good challenge to create an interesting product. And we create it on the artistic side, then give it to the marketing department. We're not ignorant of marketing concerns, but the reasons for doing this are artistic."
Meanwhile, at the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, things are positive. Last season ended in the black; this year's $476,000 budget should balance, too.
"We have seen a slight decrease in subscribers, which I suspect is typical during a transition from a founding music director, especially one who was here for 21 seasons," Braswell says. "But we had quite a few first-time ticket buyers at our opening concert in October. I think we will be very quickly building an audience for Markand and his leadership of the orchestra."
For his part, Thakar sounds delighted to be working with the orchestra, which draws several of its players from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
"Gosh, our opening concert was very rewarding," the conductor says. "I felt there was a very solid connection. These are fabulous players. I asked a lot from them, and they responded. Our challenge is to grow our audience. We haven't reached everyone we can."
Where: Second Presbyterian Church, 4200 St. Paul St.
When: 7:30 tonight, 3 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $28, $23 for seniors and students, $8 for children 12 and under
An article in yesterday's Today section listed an incorrect phone number for tickets to a Baltimore Chamber Orchestra concert. The correct number is 410-426-0157.The Sun regrets the errors.