Mayor puts feelings about city to music

When Mayor Martin O'Malley first learned that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra had agreed to perform his new song - a patriotic ballad known as "The Battle of Baltimore" - he called fellow band member Jared Denhard to get him to whip out a quick arrangement.

The song's music had never actually been scored. O'Malley doesn't know how to do that part - "I don't do music, just melody," he says. With only five days to do the arrangement and the song existing only in the mayor's head, Denhard needed the tune.

So, from the emergency operations center, with Tropical Storm Isabel surging toward the city, the mayor patiently listened to the greeting on Denhard's voice mail and then commenced to sing the song, a cappella, into the phone.

It only got more difficult after that. For one thing, the arrangement Denhard started working on got frozen in his powerless computer for two days. But, against the odds, O'Malley's March, accompanied by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, premiered "The Battle of Baltimore" last night at a concert held to raise money for families of Maryland's 9/11 victims.

The mayor's new song, in some regards, is like the emperor's new clothes - nobody's likely to come right out and say it stinks. But by most accounts, it was a hit. Really. Believe.

"It's a great song," said Lara Webber, associate conductor for the BSO. "It's very proud, and it's very effective the way it has been arranged."

Webber, who conducted the orchestra last night, said O'Malley, when he dropped off the CD containing a rough recording of the song, had some suggestions for the orchestral accompaniment, including a request for kettle drums.

"He got 'em," she said, "and a full brass section."

O'Malley was already scheduled to perform two songs with his band at the concert, a benefit for the Maryland Survivors Scholarship Fund, which provides college aid for children and dependents of the more than 50 Maryland victims killed in the 9/11 attacks at the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

O'Malley said he suggested a third, the new one, because "it's perfect for this occasion."

O'Malley made the suggestion to Gregory W. Tucker, BSO vice president for public relations. Had the song reeked, "we might have tried to let him down easy." But it didn't, Tucker said. "He's a terrific musician, and has a passion for Baltimore and its history, and the song has a very clever way of making connections between the threats of times past and present.

"This is a big deal to him. You could see he had a great personal investment in it and really wanted to make this happen."

The song is about the courage, spirit and resiliency of Baltimore residents - most of them immigrants - who took up arms against invading British troops in the War of 1812, but it draws more than a few parallels with modern times.

"We've been talking since the attack of Sept. 11 about the need to dig deep and find that self-reliant American spirit that's required to arise to this new unprecedented terrorist challenge - much like Baltimore residents did when the British attacked the city during the War of 1812," O'Malley said.

Although the seed had been there for a while, it was not until he got behind the wheel of his car and was alone on the open road that the song finally sprouted, O'Malley said as he packed his green Taylor guitar in its case, put his tie back on and reattached his pager to his belt after yesterday morning's rehearsal.

Before his primary campaign kicked into high gear, O'Malley stayed home to take a "few days to clear my head" while his wife and children went on a trip to visit her sister.

"I'd go on long drives with the radio off, and would sing it to myself in my head." During trips to Sugarloaf Mountain, southeast of Frederick, and Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, south of Cambridge, the song "kinda wrote itself" as the mayor - experiencing a kind of solitude he's not used to - pulled off the road to jot down a verse or two.

"In my day job, I never get time alone. Even in the car, there's always a detective with you. Back when I was a lawyer that's when I wrote my songs, alone in the car. But I can't do that now. You'd feel like a goofball with a detective right there next to you."

Unlike his earlier songs, the mayor admitted, he wrote this one with an orchestra in mind, particularly kettle drums. "When I was making this one up, when I was imagining this song, I heard kettle drums."

At the rehearsal, when the orchestra first swelled up behind him during a rehearsal of "The Battle of Baltimore," the mayor beamed like a 10-year-old.

"For a guy who knows three chords on guitar, this is a blast," he said after the rehearsal. "It's like this giant helium balloon of sound coming over your back."

O'Malley played with the orchestra earlier this year, and his band performed with the orchestra in 2000.

For Jim Eagan, O'Malley's March fiddle player and a newer member of the band, it was the first time he's played with a symphony. "It was overwhelming, but it was a good kind of overwhelming. It adds a lot of texture to what we're used to playing in the bars and the pubs."

O'Malley's March - a seven-member Irish bar band that has put out three CDs - drowned out the orchestra when the first song was rehearsed, but after a few adjustments in volume, balance was achieved.

At the concert, two other O'Malley songs were performed, "Wait for Me" and "The Streets of Baltimore," and the mayor and his band joined in playing the night's final selection, "Danny Boy."

The concert also featured Grammy-nominated violinist Natalie MacMaster, 14-year-old vocalist Kaitlyn Lusk and the orchestra, led by Webber, performing works by Beethoven, Elgar and Copland - all chosen because they symbolize the resilience of the human spirit.

Tickets for the benefit went from $25 to $1,000, with a goal of raising $200,000. About 70 family members of Maryland 9/11 victims attended the concert, including Carol Oppelaar, the BSO's manager of corporate support, who lost her brother in the World Trade Center.

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