WHY DOES SOMETHING always seem to go wrong for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual gala? Is it because this mega-party, which was called "Diamond Reflections: The BSO's 75th Anniversary Gala," is simply too big to pull off?
In past years, the BSO would follow its chic season-opening concert (tickets: $125 to $300) with a lavish dinner-dance at the Fifth Regiment Armory, a stone's throw from the comfortable Meyerhoff Hall.
But the often humid September weather wreaked havoc for gala-goers decked out in black tie and the latest glitzy gowns. A few years back a foggy night turned the Armory into a steam bath. Men stripped off jackets and rolled up sleeves but the women were doomed to an evening of sweat.
A troika of giant tents was the next solution, pitched on a parking lot next to the hall. But then it rained. And got humid. It was crowded in the tents, and as the city's elite fingered their stuffed lobster, they were accompanied by the counterpoint of water dripping on a canvas roof.
So this year, being the orchestra's 75th anniversary season, the gala organizers decided on a different scheme: After a cheery one-hour program of musical bon-bons emceed and conducted by music director David Zinman Saturday night, the 2,000 revelers were led by mimes, in white-face and black leotards, to the street to be whisked away by motorcoaches to the Convention Center downtown for the grand fete.
"Motorcoaches," observed Zinman dryly from the Meyerhoff stage, "are those things that look like buses."
And so 25 new MTA buses rolled up, and, without too much trouble, transported Baltimore's rich and powerful downtown. The short trip was not without a touch of the surreal. "Now most of these people can say they've actually ridden a bus," quipped one passenger.
But the trouble with this gala was waiting inside the glass doors of the Convention Center. Only one narrow escalator was working to take the crowd to the mezzanine level for cocktails. And a string orchestra playing Pachelbel's Canon was situated on the stairs.
Everything stopped. Massive tuxedo traffic jam.
By the time everyone got to the mezzanine, long lines at the bars greeted thirsty partiers. The going was so slow that patrons starting helping bartenders serve drinks. "Does anyone in this line want beer!" yelled one nattily dressed executive type. Many took him up on the offer.
Once the armies of caterers started serving the multitudes in two large rooms, and Gene Donati and his orchestra cranked up, things went smoothly. At least in the cavernous Convention Center, the late-summer heat and humidity couldn't ruin the party.
The weather Saturday: Clear and beautiful, with low humidity. In other words, a perfect night for a party outdoors under a tent.
Ah, but was this 75th Anniversary Gala a fiasco? No, at least no more than any other. Though the last few galas, this one included, have seen a falling off of musical substance in the concert portion of the event, the BSO sounded very well for an orchestra just coming back from a lengthy time off.
BSO galas were once special musical occasions, an opportunity to celebrate the advent of a new musical season by bringing to Baltimore a premiere musician on the order of Pinchas Zukerman, Marilyn Horne or Leontyne Price, all of whom appeared at BSO galas in the last five seasons.
But now the BSO has downgraded the concert in importance, essentially making it an entertainment of short musical crowd-pleasers.
Saturday night's program included William Schuman's "American Festival Overture," the Intermezzo from Mascagni's opera "Cavalleria Rusticana," Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Pizzicato Polka,' Wagner's Prelude to Act Three of "Lohengrin," Vaughan Williams' "English Folk Songs Suite," and Gliere's "Russian Sailors' Dance" from his ballet "The Red Poppy."
In these short excerpts the BSO's sound glistened; the brass in the Wagner soared with strong assurance and pinpoint accuracy, the strings in the Mascagni glowed with warmth and expression, and in the three gem-like pieces from Vaughan Williams' suite the woodwinds shone with clarity and balance.
And Zinman, who was awarded a Waterford crystal baton in appreciation (though he no longer uses one), demonstrated how bTC taste and refinement, when added to a firm emotional conviction, can restore the ability of thrice-heard music to move the listener like it did the very first time.
At least that's something to celebrate.