The history books say that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is now in its 77th season. It was founded as a civic enterprise in 1915 -- a not terribly promising year. World War I was raging in Europe, causing major concert artists there to flee the continent or be scattered throughout warring countries.
To this day, the BSO ranks as the first orchestra in U.S. history founded with a municipal appropriation.
During its 75th anniversary season, which opened in September 1990, the symphony repeated the program of its first concert -- Feb. 11, 1916. It was then under the baton of Gustav Strube. There was even present at least one person who was around for the symphony's birth, Ruth Rosenberg, a major modern-day contributor to the orchestra's funds.
"I was only 16 years old, but I remember that it was a gala, gala night," she told a packed house last year. "Here we are now, and look how we've grown."
A little-known fact is that as a name, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is at least 100 years old.
Back track to the winter of 1890-'91. The orchestra had just been founded by a local musician, Ross Junghichel. It was filled with musicians of the Peabody Conservatory and (probably) other players who staffed the city's numerous theaters and ballrooms.
In the bold, black type of a 100-year-old newspaper is an account of the fourth concert of its first season, in January 1891.
The setting was the fussy, gas-lit, old Academy of Music on North Howard Street. (The Lyric Theatre was not yet on the scene, but soon would be.) Xavier Reiter, a horn virtuoso, was on hand to play a then-rarely-heard horn concerto by Mozart. In the newspaper article, the anonymous critic says that Reiter contributed to the piece "cadenzas composed by himself." The critic found that Reiter "conquered the difficulties agreeably and with the greatest of ease," while perhaps solo horns were not too well adapted for whole concertos and did better as parts of the orchestra.
Ladies of the audience drew a breath when the soloist entered, for he was a tall and "remarkable-looking man" who had long black hair waving over his shoulders in the manner of Franz Liszt, Paganini and other idols of the romantic era.
Concerts in that long-ago day tended to mix musical mediums willy-nilly. After Reiter had retired, the audience was regaled by a solo rendition of Handel's "Largo," played by a forgotten local violinist of the day.
The orchestra, presumably, could draw a breath during this solo break, but it soon was engaged in a program that was by no means some sally into lighthearted music. It was a program, in fact, with more than a few daunting and ambitious sequences.
The music academy echoed then to "Hallen's Rhapsody," a contemporary work by Andreas Hallen, Swedish folk writer, composer and conductor. Since there were at least two rhapsodies by Hallen, we may never know which one was performed. The critic failed to report it.
For a bit, the whole evening seemed to echo orchestral folk color and joyous, Slavic works. Leo Delibes' overture for the opera "Le Roi l'a Dit" was among the exceptions. But Dvorak's "Slavonic Dances" and Liszt's "Les Preludes" -- complex, taxing masterpieces for full orchestra -- indicate that 1891's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was no pickup ensemble.
The first BSO also managed Beethoven's "Coriolan Overture" and "one movement of his 7th Symphony" (unspecified). The admission charge to this parade of wildly various goodies seems to be obscured. But we can bet it was worth the money.
7+ The first BSO would survive until 1899.