Monday’s board approval of a new one-year contract between the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its musicians is something to applaud, and not just by fans of fine music. All of Maryland should be proud of this world-class institution. It is an important part of the Baltimore brand. Much like the city’s health care institutions and port, its proud history, museums and pro sports teams, the BSO brings people together. This summer’s 14-week work stoppage was part of what has been in many ways a painful season for Charm City. What a joy to turn the page.
How appropriate, too, that the BSO’s first performance of the season will be Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, a musical standard often nicknamed the Russian composer’s “Fate symphony" for its juxtaposition of hard reality with what he described as “dreams and visions of happiness.” How flawed and perfect. How Baltimore. When Marin Alsop lifts her baton this Friday at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the audience will no doubt be transported to a different place, but its home city will remain beset from all sides — not just from the usual suspects of concentrated poverty and the legacies of racism, drug addiction and violent crime, but angry fusillades from no less than the sitting president of the United States, who in late July described it as a city where “no human being would want to live." That was an outside bombardment not seen since the glory days of Fort McHenry.
Even Baltimore’s allies are fleeting and often unreliable. A sitting governor pays lip service to Baltimore’s central role to Maryland’s economy, yet his legacy has been more about denying the city the help it so desperately needs than in providing it. How might the Red Line or the State Center renovation have sparked another urban renaissance? We will never know. And for those who thought such attacks were a thing of the past, witness Gov. Larry Hogan’s latest enterprise — using “dark money” to attack Kirwan Commission education recommendations because they, too, are likely to involve spending more on public education, including city schools. Apparently, it’s good politics to cast Kirwan as a tax increase and not the package of pre-K through 12 reforms and global competitiveness it represents. Polls that show, once again, that Marylanders want better schools and are willing to pay for them be damned.
The concept of a “greater” Baltimore deserves its own anthem. Too often this summer, public debate about Charm City’s future has fallen into the usual “them” and “they” claims that allow those who live in the suburbs and exurbs to judge Baltimore residents harshly without looking at their own role in the current circumstances. There is no Marin Alsop standing astride the region keeping us all on score. Usually, we fall to a cacophony of competing interests as critics see only Baltimore’s missteps and not its remarkable assets, and advocates grow increasingly frustrated by the lack of understanding of the city’s often complicated circumstances.
Still, there are blessings to be found in this summer of strife. If the BSO emerges from its labor woes on a road to financial viability (if patrons and other well-wishers recognize the need to bolster its endowment, for example), perhaps it was all worthwhile. Just as President Donald Trump’s attacks on this city ignited the #WeAreBaltimore movement (and a nice little market for “Better to have a few rats than be one” T-shirts and mugs), there is something to be said for the way a battle for survival can forge alliances and common ground. Perhaps the BSO contracts can be a first movement in a brilliant score of goodwill and shared ambitions.
Is that reality or a composer’s dream? Maybe a little of both. But no one can deny Baltimore’s rightful place in Central Maryland’s heart. Fixing the city’s problems requires not just accountability from City Hall or city schools, police or courts but a renewed understanding that we — meaning everyone in our greater metropolitan area — are stakeholders with a role in renewal. We need to be an orchestra and recognize we are best when we make music together. Maybe it’s a stretch to think that a one-year BSO contract will make such a difference, but isn’t it possible, for a variety of reasons, that the curtain just rose on this city’s second act? If so, play on.