The Forgotten Conductor

February 10, 1991|By Stephen Wigler

If there appears to be a special air of triumph on the faces of these two men -- one a stolid German and the other a dapper Scot -- it's because they had done something that they hoped would put Baltimore on the symphonic map.

Gustave Strube, the first conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and Reginald Stewart, the sixth, were passing the baton on Nov. 19, 1942 -- the evening of Stewart's first concert with the orchestra and the beginning of symphonic music in Baltimore as we know it. The arrival of Sergiu Comissiona was still almost 30 years in the future, Joseph Meyerhoff was a fledgling developer without the kind of fortune that could endow an orchestra, and David Zinman was a kid in the Bronx.

What the photograph doesn't tell you is that the history of the Baltimore Symphony is not continuous -- that the orchestra Strube conducted had ceased to exist the year before and that the one Stewart conducted that night was one he himself had just created.

So different was it in personnel, organization and professional level that newspapers of the day called it the "new Baltimore Symphony Orchestra," often printing new with a capital N. It was Stewart who transformed what was essentially a city band with strings to one that was filled with serious symphonic musicians. And his orchestra is the direct ancestor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary under the direction of David Zinman tomorrow night in the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Nowadays not many people remember the orchestra before the late 1960s, when the charismatic conducting of Sergiu Comissiona and the enlightened philanthropy of Joseph Meyerhoff began to make a national reputation for the BSO. Stewart, who was director of the Peabody Institute from 1941 to 1958 and conductor of the BSO from 1942 to 1952, is largely forgotten. But the Edinburgh-born musician probably wouldn't have minded his obscurity.

"Years ago when the orchestra celebrated another anniversary," says Stewart's daughter, Delphine Kelly, "I asked Daddy if it bothered him that the orchestra whose birthday they were celebrating no longer existed and that his part in creating the modern orchestra had been forgotten. He told me, 'You have to understand that an orchestra needs to steep itself in traditions.' " That's why Stewart posed with Strube -- because he knew a thing or two about orchestras. He created an enduring orchestra in Baltimore in spite of the city's less-than-generous ways toward the BSO.

There had been Baltimore orchestras before Strube's. A professional orchestra had been associated with the Peabody Conservatory from the 1860s to the early 1890s. And in 1890 W. Ross Jungnickel organized an orchestra that gave concerts sporadically until 1899. The biggest problem Baltimore orchestras faced was the Philadelphia Orchestra. That great institution, first under Leopold Stokowski and later under Eugene Ormandy, gave at least six (and sometimes more) concerts a year in Baltimore, making the BSO Baltimore's "other orchestra."

"Even in my time we joked about it," says Peabody director Robert Pierce, who joined the BSO in 1958 and was its principal hornist for 20 years. "We'd go to the men's room in the Lyric and if we found toilet paper, someone would say, 'I guess Philly's coming in tonight.' "

The orchestra that performed at the Lyric 75 years ago was founded in 1916 as a municipal orchestra -- essentially a pick-up orchestra that gave a handful of concerts each year and whose quality was much derided. It was supported entirely by taxpayers' money, which totaled about $50,000 yearly by the time of its demise in the middle of the 1941-'42 season. A Sun editorial from the time that Stewart issued his scheme for a new orchestra called the old one "a fourth-class pick-up orchestra which is gathered after Christmas each year, put through a few rehearsals and pushed out on the stage of the Lyric."

The real power behind the old BSO was not its conductors but the city's director of municipal music, Frederick Huber, a bantam rooster of a man always ready to use his spurs on anyone who crossed his path. The members of the old orchestra, fed up with Huber's imperious, insulting manner, managed to have him blacklisted by the American Federation of Musicians. That action -- in addition to other circumstances -- led to the cancellation of the 1941-'42 season and, in effect, the dismantling of the old BSO.

Stewart, who had arrived from Toronto late in the preceding summer to become director of Peabody, seemed an ideal person to create a new orchestra. Still only 41, he had already had a substantial career as a pianist and conductor.

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