The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that takes the stage this week bears only superficial resemblance to the one that glumly gathered two years ago.
That September, multimillion-dollar deficits, looming contract negotiations and the musicians' lingering ill will over management's selection of a new conductor seemed heavy enough to sink the venerable Baltimore institution. But today's BSO is revitalized and refocused, eager for the launch of a new season that will be closely watched by the national TV and print media.
Two words explain this extraordinary turnaround: Marin Alsop.
Others have played a part in the orchestra's reversal, but the dynamic, wry, 50-year-old Alsop has proven to be a remarkable catalyst for what is called, around the BSO, "the beginning of a renaissance."
She appears to have overcome the public outcry from orchestra members, triggered by the July 2005 announcement that Alsop would succeed distinguished Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov as music director two years later.
Meanwhile, BSO finances have improved markedly. An accumulated deficit of more than $17 million was retired using endowment funds, and last season's budget was balanced. Fund-raising and subscription sales have seen double-digit increases. And average attendance in Baltimore, which had fallen to just over 60 percent, is projected to exceed 75 percent this season - thanks in part to a grant that underwrote an unprecendented $25-a-seat subscription deal for this season.
On the artistic side, the orchestra's first commercial recording since the late 1990s, John Corigliano's Red Violin Concerto, with Joshua Bell as soloist, reached No. 1 on the Billboard classical chart this month. A series of BSO performances on XM Satellite Radio will be launched with the live broadcast of Thursday's season-opener.
"There seems to be a lot of positive momentum in Baltimore," says Henry Fogel, president and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League, a music industry organization in New York. "All of this energy is certainly being noticed in the orchestra field."
"Marin is the central impetus for all the things that have helped to make the turnaround possible," says BSO President and CEO Paul Meecham, who joined the organization a year ago, shortly after Michael Bronfein was elected board chairman. Both arrivals greatly improved morale.
Alsop's "appointment was the key event for Michael to become chairman, and certainly for me to ever consider coming here," says Meecham, a former top administrator with orchestras in New York, San Francisco and Seattle.
Despite their chilly start, Alsop and the BSO players have developed an upbeat relationship. The thaw quickened after the 2006 departure of managers who were unpopular with most musicians.
"I always believed it would be fine," Alsop says. "I really did. Otherwise I wouldn't have gotten into this situation. The organization feels more unified than it did in the past."
Still, the BSO faces challenges. Like most orchestras, it has been dealing for years with the trend of aging audiences and dwindling funding sources. Despite the recent financial gains, the 2007-2008 season will hardly be pressure-free: Some contractual concessions last year - an orchestral pay freeze and two weeks of unpaid vacation - will expire. Nor is anyone expecting million-dollar grants.
"We are looking at launching an endowment campaign next year," Meecham says. "It's about $55 million now and needs to be up over $100 million.
"We must prove to everyone that we can maintain stability. But we feel confident that we can make the goal, because of the amazing ticket sales and the enthusiasm about Marin."
The 'woman issue'
Generating enthusiasm and buzz seems to be an Alsop specialty.
Her status as the first woman to be named music director of a major U.S. orchestra produced instant global press in 2005. Shortly after, she became the first conductor to win a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."
Alsop doesn't spend time dwelling on the historical nature of her BSO appointment.
"The woman issue is a little old," she says. "That's so '80s - been there, done that and got the T-shirt."
A native New Yorker, Alsop wasn't easily dissuaded from entering a field dominated by men.
In the early 1980s, when she couldn't get into the conducting program at the Juilliard School, she founded her own orchestra to gain experience. She went on to study with her childhood idol, Leonard Bernstein, and became music director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, a post she held for a dozen years. In 2002, she was the first woman to be named principal conductor of a major British orchestra, the Bournemouth Symphony.
"I know that everyone makes a point about her being a woman conductor," says Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, where Alsop and the BSO will perform in February. "But it's important to say that she's [succeeded] not because she's a woman but because she is a wonderful artist."
Gillinson first met Alsop in 1990, when she was still honing her craft.
"What I love about Marin," he says, "is that she's a team player, a motivator, a great communicator."
Alsop, with her potent communication skills, was an obvious candidate for the BSO position. She was seen as someone who could appeal to a younger and broader crowd - as well as potential donors.
A skilled, off-the-cuff speaker whose remarks from the stage invariably come spiced with a quick, dry wit, Alsop can get people's attention as few in the business can. Her approach is a stark contrast with the Old World manner of Temirkanov, who felt that conductors should be seen and not heard.
"Marin knows the importance of demystifying what we do, but in a way that still honors what we do," says percussionist Brian Prechtl.
Always tuned into new technology, Alsop and the orchestra had a successful debut last season on iTunes, and she has created podcasts about the BSO that will soon be available on that site. And tomorrow, the BSO is scheduled to launch a new Web site featuring videos of Alsop talking about the programs she'll conduct this season, the first in her three-year contract.
Alsop conveys authority, informality and determination when she makes her entrance onstage, usually in her signature black suit with contrasting scarlet cuffs.
In the summer of 2005, that determination was tested when BSO players balked at management's method of choosing Alsop. The decision came a time when resentment among musicians toward the BSO management was at a peak.
The dispute looked like a direct slap at Alsop by the orchestra and set up a potentially explosive situation.
"Other people less courageous would have walked away," Gillinson says, "but - absolutely typical of Marin - she was very courageous."
Although Alsop heard from friends urging her to pass on the BSO post, she stuck with her initial instincts. "The most important thing that drew me to the job was what I perceived to be the orchestra's achievement already and what the artistic quality could be," she says.
Alsop recalls seeing specific areas that she could have a quick influence on: the lack of recordings, declining attendance and the enormous debt.
"Already, we've got the recordings, the downloading and XM radio," she says.
"So, I'm thinking, great, I'm already helpful with that. The board and staff have come a long way in resolving the debt. And look what's happening with the attendance."
Today, the residue from the 2005 conflict is faint but still sparks comment, especially in the press.
"I don't know if this will go away ever, and I'm not sure that's the goal," she says. "The goal is to have some perspective on it."
Associate concertmaster Madeline Adkins just shrugs when asked about the old controversy.
"It has been two years," she says. "Marin has such high standards. Her attention to detail, her emphasis on rhythm really brings us to our best level. And she's got so much enthusiasm, it's infectious."
A new team
Part of the rosier outlook among the musicians can be traced to the change in management.
"We finally have a team of artistic, administrative and board people who can match the quality of the orchestra," says violinist Gregory Mulligan. "There's more of a sense now that the leaders want to listen to us. It's a lot easier to come to work."
It also seems to be a lot easier for former BSO supporters to return. One example: Richard Hug, a patron and longtime board member who resigned a few years ago.
"The reason I departed was that I don't serve on nonprofit boards that run deficits," says Hug, head of a business and investment consulting firm.
Hug returned to the organization in a big way - he and his wife chaired the planning committee for the BSO's annual fundraising gala concert, which drew a packed house Sept. 15 at the Meyerhoff and raised $900,000.
"I'm very enthusiastic now with the new leadership," Hug says, "and the new 'maestra.'"
Alsop seems thoroughly at ease as she heads into her inaugural season.
She also looks quite at home in her Meyerhoff dressing room/office, a formerly bland space that underwent a trendy makeover by a local design company.
"It's a hip, happenin' place," Alsop says in her trademark, deadpan style.
As for her budding relationship with the BSO, the conductor talks about "gradual growth, as people are able to let go of things. I sense a growing mutual trust."
Alsop plans on gaining similar trust from concert-goers, especially as she introduces more modern music than the BSO has played in recent years. "It is a disservice to the audience to assume they only like 40 pieces and that's it," she says.
Much of the new music will be juxtaposed with familiar symphonies by Beethoven, and many of the contemporary composers will be here to conduct and discuss their work.
"It's about looking at the old through a new lens," Alsop says. "I hope by the end of the season people will feel they've had some sort of experience that has challenged them to think and listen in new ways."
The conductor will be regularly challenging the musicians and staff as well.
"I know that when I hurricane myself into town with a thousand ideas it can be pretty overwhelming," she says. "But everyone seems willing to try things, even if they think I'm crazy. For me, the most interesting thing is that everyone seems to have a unified, can-do attitude. And we have good laughs."
Alsop has set a high goal for the orchestra and herself.
"There has to be something more than just playing well," she says. The key is to "play so stunningly that it changes people's lives."
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. The program features Fearful Symmetries by John Adams and Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony. Tickets are $37 to $84. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.