The biggest musical news coming out of Baltimore these days has to do with one of the 10 biggest orchestras in the land—the Baltimore Symphony. Despite receiving perplexed looks from people outside the curved lobby windows of the Meyerhoff for a decision to remedy years of operating in the red by dipping into their endowment, the BSO has made a much bigger (and better) national impression this season, owing much, if not all of that to its new media maven music director Marin Alsop, the first female to front a major American orchestra. Despite a chilly initial reception from the orchestra musicians, which bordered on an outright revolt—nearly 90 percent of BSO players objected to a search process in which they felt that had little or no say—the orchestra appears to have warmed to the Maestra and her agenda, central to which is a commitment to new American music. Alsop, who also directs the annual Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California, fancies herself a champion of the new and her programming—and the massive media offensive—for her inaugural season has certainly reflected that.
Among the notable American composers represented in Alsop’s first season included Baltimore’s own Christopher Rouse, Aaron Jay Kernis, John Corigliano, Joan Tower, the U.S. premiere of Steve Mackey’s Time Release, and John Adams, who in addition to being featured on one of Alsop’s programs, took the helm on a separate occasion to conduct his My Father Knew Charles Ives and The Wound Dresser. Perhaps as a way of reassuring audiences that new music is something to get excited about rather than fear, Alsop instituted the Composers in Conversation Series, an informal discussion with the composer featured on the upcoming program at the nearby intimate Theater Project venue. Alsop is a bridge builder and her push to broaden the BSO’s audience (and lure more season subscribers in the process) also included a few creative but questionable extracurricular programs such as CSI: Beethoven, a play off of the popular television program, which paired excerpts of Beethoven symphonies, scholarly research, medical and forensic experts, and even a Beethoven impersonator to supposedly unearth some of the mystery surrounding the composer’s death. And with the addition of cheap subscription tickets and new web content, including resourceful preview-the-concert and meet-the-Maestra videos, the BSO is taking giant steps in an effort to brand itself and its new leader as approachable and fun—a huge change from Temirkanov, who despite his brilliant command of some very meaty repertoire, was often portrayed as icy and old-fashioned.
So how do you follow an opening season like that? Not the way you might think. In her press conference announcing the BSO’s next season—streamed live online—one noticed that Baltimore’s new music champion seemed to have put less stress on the new, with the only living composers represented on her programs being Michael Daugherty, Joseph Schwantner, more of her perennial favorite Christopher Rouse, and the world premiere of a new violin concerto by Jennifer Higdon. Instead, Alsop is devoting much of the BSO’s 2008-2009 season to the work of one of her mentors, Leonard Bernstein, as well as trying her hand at more substantial repertoire that at first glance might seem to suit her traditionalist predecessor Yuri Temirkanov a bit more than a self-styled contemporary music crusader. Also sadly going the way of the dodo next season is the Composers in Conversation Series, which seemed to be a lynchpin in Alsop’s campaign to advocate new music in a town that has in recent years grown more accustomed to old war horses than young lions.
The greatest challenge for Alsop and the BSO next season will be living up to the hype that they’ve created for themselves. Much of the buzz this season had to do with novelty and newness, musical and otherwise, so it will be interesting to see how long the BSO can sustain that and if the immense momentum from Alsop’s first season will translate into a boon at the box office years down the road. Alsop is full of fresh and imaginative ideas, but what impact those ideas will have and if the public will continue to buy into them remains to be seen. But if one thing is certain, it’s that Alsop and the BSO have been the talk of the town this season. From the glossy monthlies to the mainstream media to the free alternative press, Baltimore has embraced the new-look BSO and expects big things. All there is to do now is to wait and see if they deliver.