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Energized mood, subscription bargains are just the ticket for BSO

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Who would have thought it?

A line of eager, would-be subscribers snaking around Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, waiting for the box office to open on the first day of sales for next season.

A big corporation giving big bucks to underwrite an extraordinary $25-per-ticket subscription deal (hence the line around Meyerhoff).

Musicians using words like "fabulous" and "energized" to describe the mood in the orchestra.

Are you sure we're talking about the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra?

The one that was in danger of financial ruin? The one that was saddled with unpopular and uninspiring management, burdened by low morale? The one that made international headlines when its players balked at the appointment of Marin Alsop as music director?

Yep. That's the same BSO, all right. In terms of transformation and turn-around, it would be hard to find a more remarkable case study. Almost everything has changed over there, and for the better, just in the past year.

It remains to be seen how well the BSO can maintain this restoration, especially on the fiscal side, and how powerfully it can build on the newly upbeat mood.

The proof, as always, will be in the contributed income, in the attendance at concerts and in the quality of the concerts themselves. But the odds sure look good.

In purely musical terms, the season that Alsop announced about two weeks ago represents a decidedly attractive package of the familiar and the unfamiliar. The most obvious example is the way all nine of Beethoven's symphonies will be paired with contemporary music, but the old/new balance crops up repeatedly in other ways throughout the season.

BSO audiences will be in for what must be the highest percentage of fresh experiences since the heyday of former music director David Zinman, a devoted champion of living composers.

To be sure, the public didn't always go along with Zinman back in the 1980s and '90s. For that matter, audiences didn't always go along with some of the less modern, but still new-to-the-orchestra, repertoire that his successor, Yuri Temirkanov, programmed over the past seven seasons.

Even comfortable classics did not necessarily strike the public's fancy in recent years. As Alsop says, "The concerts with standard repertoire were not sold out, so why should we stick with that?"

Her response is to shake up the scene in a direct and personal way, bringing in not just novel music, but the composers themselves - 11 of them in a single season. Some of them will do the conducting, too, and not just their own works, but traditional fare as well.

New Yorkers might get ho-hum-y about an in-person roster that includes Thomas Ades, John Adams, John Corigliano, Tan Dun, HK Gruber, Aaron Jay Kernis, Steven Mackey, James MacMillan, Mark O'Connor, Christopher Rouse and Joan Tower, but I think anywhere else it would qualify as big news.

The emphasis on new music next season, Alsop's official first as music director, may strike some longtime BSO watchers and listeners as a kind of Zinman tenure redux.

But "this is not a repeat," Alsop says. "I never looked at the programs that David did when I was planning [the '07-'08] season. Philosophically, he and I share a happy obligation to include the music of our time and to champion the music we believe in."

Combining strengths

Alsop is not one to play it safe, nor is she one to depart from everything an orchestra has been doing just for the sake of change. She suggests that her inaugural season choices represent "a hybrid of what David and Temirkanov were doing, a way to bring those two strengths together."

A season with Rouse (a Zinman favorite) and Gershwin (a Temirkanov favorite) does have a nice resonance about it. But this programming is really all-Alsop, from the opening combination of Adams and Mahler to the closing juxtaposition of Tower and Beethoven. It's clear that a statement is being made, a direction being signaled.

That's what you hire a new music director for, along with the hope of making an orchestra better, of course. Temirkanov left his successor with a greatly improved ensemble, one capable of achieving a seemingly soulful communion of musical purpose, and one boosted with several splendid new principal chair players.

Not everyone around here noticed. Some outside analysts didn't, either. (One newspaper's critic recently described the BSO as "artistically irrelevant.")

"I think there has been [a lot of] underestimating of this orchestra," Alsop says. "It's a superb orchestra. But it's better to be the underdog, I can tell you. I want the orchestra to stand as an equal to the great orchestras of the country and the world."

My guess is that the BSO will be gaining wider respect, not just attention, as Alsop settles into the job. If the organization gains more financial solidity and consistency, too, the future would seem unlimited.

The $25 deal for subscribers next season (a nice tie-in to the 25th anniversary of Meyerhoff Hall) should bulk up ticket revenue. Early indications are that sales are brisk.

New subscriptions up

About 450 people turned out for a three-hour open house at Meyerhoff on March 3, the day subscriptions went on sale, and about 400 new subscription orders were placed, a figure called "unprecedented" by the BSO marketing department.

Eileen Andrews Jackson, vice president of public relations and community affairs, reports that subscription revenue is already two-and-a-half times higher than the orchestra took in this time last year. "And that's despite the 40 percent decrease in cost for average subscription for next season," Jackson says. Compared with last year at this time, five times more subscription tickets have been sold since March 3, she said.

Given that current subscribers still have through April to renew, all of this new business strongly suggests there's a major new buzz about the BSO.

Of course, price-cutting isn't always a sure thing, as many a retailer will attest. But BSO President and CEO Paul Meecham says that the underwriting from the PNC Foundation (of the Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group) "effectively allows us to risk doing this. We did the math," he says.

Still to be determined is a key factor in any orchestra's livelihood: single ticket prices. They probably won't be announced for several months, while the subscriber push is on.

It seems safe to predict that a lot of people, more than have typically flocked to Meyerhoff in recent years, will be signed up and ready for the fun come September.

And you can count on more novel musical touches as the Alsop era unfolds beyond next season. Putting Beethoven alongside Ades or MacMillan is obviously just the beginning.

"Someone said to me, 'Tradition is just the last bad idea,'" Alsop says. "I'm not an advocate of that, but it is a good time to look at how we do things. It's a very exciting time to be in this business."

It looks like it's going to be a pretty cool time just listening to that business develop.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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