Crowds to blame for BSO's split personality

The Baltimore Sun

Back in the day, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's summer season at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall steered a fairly straight classical course. Sometimes, there were substantive chamber music programs as appetizers before the orchestral concerts.

Edible appetizers were available several years, along with lots of other refreshments, on sale outside the hall before the main event. Wine tastings were tried out, too, along the way. And after the BSO's final notes of the evening, the action often moved back outside for food, drink and dancing.

The Summernights 2008 fest that wrapped up at the beginning of this month didn't have those extra trappings at Meyerhoff. It didn't have all the classical fare, either.

The Music Center at Strathmore, the BSO's second home in Bethesda, got a four-concert serving of traditional classics - Vivaldi, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Bernstein. Meyerhoff shared only two of Strathmore's classical programs. The rest of the programs there took a decidedly pop culture turn - an evening of video game music, another of Grateful Dead songs dressed up orchestrally into a "symphony."

And, as a bonus, the BSO moved to the Pier Six Pavilion to close its Baltimore summer spree with a tribute to another old rock group, Led Zeppelin.

I found the shift in tone and emphasis rather curious, and I found the explanation interesting. It turns out that Baltimore classical music lovers have tended to disappear after the calendar slips past June.

"I looked at audience size, and the cost to put on the concerts at Meyerhoff versus what we brought in," says BSO President/CEO Paul Meecham. "There wasn't the level of demand in Baltimore."

That's not all. In 2007, a significant difference between Meyerhoff and Strathmore audiences emerged.

When it came to a performance of Beethoven's Ninth, the surest ticket-generator in the repertoire year-round, both venues easily sold lots of tickets. Otherwise, the summer concerts that year "underperformed in Baltimore, while Strathmore did very well," Meecham says. "But a program we did with [jazz clarinetist] Paquito d'Rivera did well in Baltimore, not at Strathmore."

This year, Meecham decided to "retain classical programming at Strathmore," where the public seemed less inclined toward lighter or cross-over programs, "and mix it up more at Meyerhoff," where the classics weren't causing lines at the box office.

Meecham notes that "a few people said it was a shame we didn't have the outdoor food and entertainment at Meyerhoff. We might reinstate that, but there was very little money coming in from that in past years," he says.

Not surprisingly, then, it's all about the bottom line. My guess is that the BSO's split personality this summer will return in 2009, as the orchestra continues to tweak things, seeking to find the formula that will sell best in each venue.

Here are some statistics from the 2008 summer festival:

At the 2,400-seat Meyerhoff, the Grateful Dead tribute sold out, and the program of video game music nearly did. Both events drew many people to a BSO event for the first time (32 percent of the video crowd, 40 percent of the Dead audience). But, adding in the two classical programs, the average capacity at the hall was 70 percent.

The Pier Six concert drew more than 3,500 people (total capacity about 4,200).

At Strathmore, the Gershwin/Bernstein concert sold out (it wasn't offered at Meyerhoff), and average capacity for the summer season was 73 percent.

Concert Artists

The 2008-2009 season will find the Concert Artists of Baltimore tackling Verdi's monumental Requiem on April 18 at the Lyric Opera House. Founding artistic director Edward Polochick has programmed additional choral music during the season - Concert Artists comprises a professional chorus as well as an orchestra - including Symphony No. 2 (Lobgesang) by Mendelssohn, to celebrate the composer's bicentennial in '09.

That program, which also includes Mendelssohn's Concerto for Two Pianos (with soloists Brian Ganz and Shaun Tirrell), will be performed March 7 at the ensemble's regular home, the acoustically superb Gordon Center in Owings Mills.

The season opens there Sept. 27 with a French program that features Lalo's Cello Concerto (with soloist Gita Ladd), orchestral works by Ravel and Ibert, and a contemporary French choral repertoire. American music is the focus of the Nov. 8 concert, including such favorites as Barber's Adagio for Strings, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (with pianist Inna Faliks) and dances from Copland's Rodeo.

A dance theme will thread through a concert Jan. 31 that offers Kodaly's Dances of Galanta and, with pianist Mark Markham, works by Liszt and Chopin. Choral music from Eastern Europe will also be performed.

The chamber music series offered by Concert Artists at the Engineers Club on Mount Vernon Place includes a Christmas program Dec. 14; a presentation of Walton's Facade (with narrators Jonathan Palevsky and Mark Malinowsky) on Feb. 15; and a concert featuring guitarist/composer Jaume Torrent on May 3.

Information: Call 410-625-3525 or go to

Opera Vivente

Opera Vivente will focus on "bad boys" during its 2008-2009 season, starting with one of the super-bad - Don Giovanni, the roue immortalized in Mozart's opera. Since the company performs everything in English, the title of work has been translated, too: Lord Giovanni. The cast for this production, Sept. 26-Oct. 4, includes Christopher Austin in the title role. Jed Gaylin conducts.

The notorious Nero, a pivotal figure in Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea, is the next bad boy. He will be portrayed by male soprano David Korn. Joseph Gashco conducts the production, March 6-14. An unintentionally bad fellow, the hero of Britten's gentle comedy Albert Herring, will close the company's 11th season. The cast is headed by Adam Caughey and conducted by JoAnn Kulesza.

John Bowen, founding artistic director of Opera Vivente, will direct the three stagings. The company also has a Christmas cabaret slated for Dec. 12.

All performances are at Baltimore's Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Information: Call 410-547-7997 or go to


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