Lots of good classical music played to lots of empty chairs

Ernest F. Imhoff

October 11, 1991|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,Ernest F. Imhoff is an assistant managing editor of The Evening Sun who has been writing on classical music.

BALTIMORE has more good classical music than it has ears to hear it.

Even if you don't count the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Opera, listen up and look around: good music, a hard core of loyal fans and often empty seats. Such a waste. I think of a 12-year-old scotch being poured over the side of a glass.

Eight people show up for a recital by Soviet immigrant oboist Vladimir Lande and his wife, pianist Irina. Lots of halls are three-quarters or half full when first-rate players invoke Bach, Mozart and Mahler. No question big names or big events do well, but sellouts are rare at scores of concerts.

Peabody Institute alone lists 63 public concerts this season. Two dozen or more professionally trained groups play and sing here. Singles, duos and trios abound. More than 80 holiday-related concerts, excluding those in churches, will be planned in December. The mid-Sunday afternoon music ghetto, both convenient and confusing, draws up to 10 concerts a Sunday.

To beat the crunch of few fans/many concerts, music directors do scheduling flips: They plan events on mid-week evenings (Baltimore Chamber Orchestra) or during slim September (Columbia Pro Cantare) or in the 5:30 p.m. Sunday twilight zone (Cathedral Concert series).

Good music, of course, has different levels and shadings. A Shriver Hall concert might beat a local chamber group in sophistication. Some area orchestras may appeal to some people more than the BSO. D.C. may offer something Baltimore doesn't. So much the better. But there's enough quality music here to please varied tastes.

The recession adds a sour note. Some concerts are free (but pass the basket), yet many cost up to $10 and even up to $20. Many fans can afford the music but others can't. Musicians must eat; they string jobs together like linked sausages -- music gigs, teaching spots, church choir jobs, out-of-town venues. "I drive more than I play," one says.

Why so much classical music here? Peabody and other schools churn out devoted, skilled musicians. Many players stay here; they like the town, it'd be even tougher in New York or Washington. There might be no work in smaller places. A good job is tightly held: The average stay by the 96 BSO players is 26 years.

For all of them, music-making is an important bodily function. The urge is overwhelming for fingers, lips and vocal chords to empty out those beautiful sounds.

The musicians at times probably feel unappreciated, get discouraged or even feel lonely. "I'm a minority in the minority form of music," says one black classical musician. But for him and his colleagues, classical music breathes the clean air.

Why not bigger crowds? Reasons are as plentiful as notes, but for one thing, younger people stay away in droves, drawn instead to the fires of Madonna, Megadeath and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Untaught by school or family, they can be unaware of young men like Schubert, Bellini, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Chopin who wrote such elegant stuff and died in their 30s.

Yet exciting, youthful things happen in area classical music.

Skilled young classical musicians perform for older audiences who appreciate the likes of violinist Diane Duraffourg, pianist Eckart Heiligers, baritone Richard Zeller and soprano Keyontia Hawkins.

Premieres of new works appear regularly (some are also last performances). The BSO alone will play the music of about 20 contemporary composers this season, including new works by four black composers.

Imaginative women inside and outside run the all-professional Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. Its conductor (Giselle Ben Dor), its associate conductor (Karen Deal), its concertmaster (Brynn Albanese) and its executive director (Patricia Edwards) began their dynamic season this past weekend with BSO violinist Herbert Greenberg playing the Brahms' Violin Concerto in D Major.

In the end, the Baltimore area is lucky. With a little exploring around the Pataspco River, adventurers in classical music can find nuggets all over an unlikely beach.

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