BSO 75th Season Will to survive marks orchestra's history

February 07, 1991|By Peter Krask | Peter Krask,Evening Sun Staff

WHEN THE BALTIMORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA celebrates its 75th anniversary on Monday it will honor a history filled with stops and starts marked by the efforts, or sheer acts of will, of men convinced that Baltimore was entitled to a first-class orchestra of its own.

It took a few tries before the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra got it right. A quick glance at those bumpy 75 years brings out many high points:

* Feb. 11, 1916, Gustav Strube conducts the inaugural concert of the Baltimore Symphony -- the first municipally funded orchestra in the United States.

In 1930, George Siemonn leads the orchestra in their first national broadcast over WBAL Radio.

* Nov. 19, 1942, Reginald Stewart leads a new BSO in its first concert at the Lyric Theater.

Through forty years and various conductors, the list continues:

* In 1981, Sergiu Comissiona and the BSO tour East Germany, becoming the first American symphony to do so.

* In 1985, David Zinman is named music director of the BSO, a tenure crowded with international praise, prize-winning recordings, a bitter and protracted strike, and an exhilarating tour of Moscow.

Such a list merely grazes the surface of the BSO's history. The important story is its will to survive. This orchestra collapsed twice, only to revive itself, awakened by the scent of music.

Baltimore's first orchestra began in 1890. Founded by Ross Jungnichel, its members were chiefly drawn from the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory. The group wavered in and out of existence for 10 years, usually giving six concerts per year. It eventually faded away toward the end of 1899.

For the next sixteen years, Baltimore imported its musical

culture. Finally, Mayor Richard Jackson, declared, "Citizens have much right to organizations that provide for aesthetic development as they do to a sanitation department," and set aside money in the city budget for the establishment of an orchestra. That money, combined with the efforts of Peabody's Florestan Club, got the BSO rolling.

Gustav Strube, a member of the Peabody faculty, was selected as the new BSO's conductor. Strube's orchestra would last for 26 years and see four more conductors -- George Siemonn, Ernest Schelling, Werner Janssen and Harold Barlow.

Ironically, Mayor Jackson's artistic vision triggered the BSO's second tailspin. His appointment of Frederick R. Huber as municipal director of music spawned turmoil for the city's musical life. At best it was a questionable decision.

Huber sat on the boards of all of the city's musical organizations. Yet, he also accepted their bids for city contracts. Conflict of interest or not, his iron grip on Baltimore's music industry rankled the musicians' union, Local No. 40.

Huber and the union played a nasty game of one-upmanship during his term in office. Huber would underbid the services of non-union musicians. The union, particularly the BSO, would threaten a strike in retaliation. Those antics continued, constantly escalating, until a hostile salary dispute forced the issue to an ugly denouement.

On Feb. 2, 1942, the Musical Union of Baltimore, along with the American Federation of Musicians, recommended that Huber be blacklisted. The city's musical life was silenced. Since Huber supervised every musical institution in Baltimore, no musician, local or visiting, could perform without crossing the picket line.

Mayor Jackson remained silent until April, when the City Council passed a resolution creating a new Municipal Department of Music. Huber's services were terminated on a technicality. He had never taken his oath of office.

Public support for the BSO withered during the virulent blacklisting. Even The Evening Sun turned against the orchestra, describing it as "a fourth-class pick-up orchestra . . . pushed on stage disguised a as real one." The BSO crumbled again.

Enter a triple threat named Reginald Stewart. Conductor, pianist, and educator, the Scottish-born Stewart had recently arrived in Baltimore as the new director of Peabody. Stewart rattled some life into the school and seized upon the BSO with the same energy and imagination.

Stewart formulated a plan for the BSO's complete reorganization. On Sept. 11, 1942, a new BSO was officially launched. Stewart's blueprint called for 28 concerts, an expanded roster of 90 players, auditions and a new rehearsal and pay schedule.

The opening concert was set for Nov. 19. Over the next two months, local attention was riveted to the BSO's progress. Daily reports filled the newspapers, which tagged Stewart as a combination of Stokowski and Joe Louis.

Mayor Jackson appealed to Baltimore's patriotism, dubbing the new BSO a part of the war effort. Said Jackson, "If music is good in peacetime, it is more than ever needed in dark days such as these."

Tickets sold out, and when the concert finally arrived, Baltimore was beside itself with anticipation. Society matrons, shopkeepers, men in tails, soldiers, defense workers and

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