Baltimore and the rest of America missed out on the great concert tours of those early geniuses of classical music: Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert, etc. Trans-Atlantic tours just weren't commonplace in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Then, too, this country wasn't musically mature enough in those days to appreciate the works of the masters.
But Charm City has certainly attracted its share of musical greats since then -- tours by composers of lasting masterpieces.
Way back in the 1860s Rimsky-Korsakov, the Russian orchestral gold medalist, paid a call on Baltimore and Annapolis, as a naval cadet, years before his fame. And in the 1890s, shortly before his death, the beloved Tchaikovsky did a one-night stand in Baltimore with a pickup orchestra using Boston symphony regulars.
From the 1850s forward, the city has always been more or less a mandatory stop for musical performers. The 20th century, with its expanded musical life, brought a more generous load of musical creators, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s.
The world triumph of "Der Rosenkavalier" had made Richard Strauss a celebrity when he paid a call on the town in January 1921, accompanying the great soprano Elisabeth Schumann in a song recital at the Lyric Opera House. She sang the famed Brahms lullaby and seven Strauss songs, including "Dream During Twilight" which Strauss, a very quick study, wrote in five minutes.
A famed conductor as well as a composer, Strauss reflected in Baltimore that "it takes a long time for just two opera companies [New York's and Chicago's] to have much effect on the popular taste in a country as large as America."
Strauss had been conducting orchestras since 1886 and was hardly regarded as a novice in this single call on Baltimore. A reporter, before the day of newsreels and television, wrote that the visitor was "tall, more than 6 feet and walks with an elegant stoop. He has enormous hands, renowned for their size, yet delicately molded."
Another musical visitor with huge hands would show up the year after Strauss. He was not only a composer but a virtuoso. Of all the great classical composers, the towering Sergei Rachmaninoff holds the record for visiting Baltimore: in 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1928, 1929, 1931, 1934, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1941 and 1942 (and we may have missed a few years). A noted recluse, Rachmaninoff was seldom quoted in the press, despite his huge following and public concertizing.
The American musical maturity that Strauss said we seemed to miss would surface soon after the German composer's 1921 visit.
Enter composer George Gershwin, who, in his short but creatively unequaled life, was to immortalize musically the metropolitan tang of early 20th century Manhattan and the black culture of the Carolina coast. Gershwin came to town and the Lyric in 1925, only a week after the New York premiere of his Concerto in F, whose dazzling drive and percussive piano techniques represented an advance over his "Rhapsody in Blue," also for piano and orchestra.
"Jazz composers," he told Baltimore reporters, "must study the old forms as an artist must study old painters." But "the true interpreter of American life, the man who writes to place his feelings, his ideas in musical form, will rise above merely what he has learned from old masters." He added that he wanted to "write an opera of the melting pot of New York City," something, he said, that would be "symbolic" of the city's "native and immigrant strains."
Then he sat down in the hushed Baltimore hall and the tremendous staccato piano passages of the concerto poured out, like the rattle of a jazz-age machine gun. *