BSO lays off five employees as revenue declines

The Baltimore Sun

The recession - or is it the Great Depression II? - continues to take its toll on the local arts scene.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra laid off five of its 67 administrative employees and changed one full-time position to part-time yesterday in an effort to reduce expenditures. Those moves, along with a decision not to fill certain open staff positions, will save the BSO about $500,000.

"We can see that the economic downturn is going to be a lot more prolonged than we had expected," president/CEO Paul Meecham said. "We're trying to do everything we can to cut costs and raise money, without cutting quality onstage."

The BSO has seen a decline in single-ticket sales and government grants this season. Meecham said smaller gifts of $500 or less are down about 30 percent from last year. And since Sept. 1, the orchestra's endowment has dropped 23 percent in value, to about $47 million.

Meanwhile, the board of the Baltimore Opera Company, which filed for bankruptcy protection last month, is "interested in putting on an opera in the fall," general director M. Kevin Wixted said. Everything will depend on fundraising during the company's current suspension of operations.

Seven employees remain on the payroll. Nearly 200 others, including production personnel, staffers, choristers and orchestra members, lost all or a significant portion of their livelihood when the company canceled the spring season.

Wixted said "a lot of small checks came in" in response to a fundraising appeal made just before the Chapter 11 filing. He also said former general director and current artistic director Michael Harrison is the company's primary fundraiser.

Over at the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, players agreed to volunteer their services so that a Jan. 25 concert can proceed as scheduled. The guest artist, stellar clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, has done the same.

The remainder of this season has been canceled. In a message this week to supporters, the BCO's board of directors said: "To take on the expenses of the February and May concerts would have been irresponsible and would have meant the total collapse of the organization."

During the suspension of operations, fundraising for next season and beyond will continue.

Washington Opera

Although dyed-in-the-Rhine types may still feel disappointed that Washington National Opera had to shelve a complete production of Wagner's Ring next season because of fiscal constraints, there are plenty of attractions in the company's 2009-2010 lineup, announced this week. (That Ring will eventually be presented, WNO officials reiterate.)

Next season, which general director Placido Domingo describes as "a perfect balance" (some might call it a perfectly conservative balance), is slightly shorter - six staged productions instead of the current seven. But Gotterdammerung, the concluding chapter of the Ring, will almost make seven; it will be presented in concert form.

First up in September is Rossini's evergreen The Barber of Seville. Making his company debut as Almaviva in this production will be brilliant-toned tenor Lawrence Brownlee.

Verdi's sublime comedy Falstaff arrives in October. The title role has yet to be announced, but the cast includes Gordon Hawkins (Ford) and Nancy Maultsby (Dame Quickly). Ariadne auf Naxos, the ingenious Richard Strauss opera, arrives later that month with a roster that includes Irene Theorin as Ariadne, and Par Lindskog and Ian Storey alternating in the role of Bacchus.

Company music director Heinz Fricke, who will conduct Ariadne, will also be on the podium when WNO presents the concert version of Gotterdammerung in November with Theorin (Brunnhilde), Storey (Siegfried) and Alan Held (Gunther).

Gershwin's iconic Porgy and Bess opens in March 2010 with Eric Owens and Lester Lynch alternating as Porgy, Morenike Fadayomi and Indira Mahajan as Bess.

In April/May 2010, Mozart's enduring comedy The Marriage of Figaro will include such singers as Ildar Abdrazakov (Figaro), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Almaviva) and Krassimira Stoyanova (Countess).

The Washington company will introduce Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet into its repertoire in May/June 2010 with a cast that includes Carlos Alvarez in the title role, Samuel Ramey as Claudius and Diana Damrau as Ophelia. Domingo will conduct the infrequently encountered opera. He'll also conduct a concert in October featuring Abdrazakov and his wife, celebrated mezzo Olga Borodina.

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An addition to WNO's current season has also been announced: Domingo will sing a program called "From My Latin Soul," featuring tangos, excerpts from zarzuelas and more. This concert, with the WNO Orchestra, will be May 1 at DAR Constitution Hall.

Weekend update

Marin Alsop led the BSO last Friday in a fate-filled program: Tchaikovsky's Hamlet, a portrait of Shakespeare's noble, doomed hero; Joseph Schwantner's New Morning for the World, a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s inspiring philosophy, and an unsettling reminder of his tragic death; and Brahms' Symphony No. 1, with its references to the "fate" motive from Beethoven's Fifth.

Alsop led a taut, often gripping account of the Tchaikovsky score. I only wish she had brought more weight to the solemn coda and, especially, had held onto the final chord much longer. There was a lot of admirable work from the ensemble, including some elegant playing from guest oboist Shea Scruggs, part of his audition for the assistant principal oboe chair - which he won.

Schwantner's eventful piece had the benefit of Kweisi Mfume as narrator, even more assured and vibrant in his delivery than he had been last week at the BSO's annual MLK concert. Alsop again fashioned a telling, propulsive performance that had the orchestra sounding in top form.

There were many incisive and involving elements in the conductor's approach to Brahms' First Symphony, among them the bold thrust at the start; lovely molding of the two inner movements; and the wonderful pianissimo pizzicato she coaxed from the strings during the portentous opening of the finale. But the famous tune of that finale sounded curiously drained of life and poetry. Alsop made up for that deflation with plenty of expressive drama as the symphony charged toward its optimistic conclusion.

Saturday night's "Off the Cuff" program, a discussion and complete performance of Brahms' First, featured entertaining commentary by Alsop, who does this sort of thing better than almost anyone around. Her comments were punctuated by apt excerpts from the symphony and music by Brahms' contemporaries, smoothly delivered by the orchestra.

A cool bonus - principal horn Phil Munds lifted a mile-long alp horn and played the tune Brahms apparently heard on such an instrument during a visit to the mountains and, to haunting effect, incorporated into the finale of his symphony.

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