Meyerhoff Hall: 10 years as home to BSO, symbol of arts

September 20, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

When Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall opened 10 years ago this week, it was the cultural equivalent of Opening Day at Oriole Park: Luminaries from the music world, critics and music lovers streamed into Baltimore to witness the birth of the new $23 million temple of sound.

Sergiu Commissiona led the orchestra in a program that offered pianist Leon Fleisher's celebrated return to two-handed performance -- an event that was later broadcast on public television.

The building of the concert hall was as important an artistic landmark as exists in this city. Over the years, Meyerhoff Hall has become a symbol of urban renaissance, of cultural commitment and of artistic achievement.

Widely praised for its acoustics and ambience, the hall has helped develop the Baltimore Symphony into a world-class orchestra. During the past decade, the orchestra has vastly expanded its musical programming, adding such features as Saturday morning casual concerts and family concerts. (The BSO will entertain its millionth child this fall.) This season it offers roughly 120 music series packages; the first season, there were 10.

The orchestra has also made 14 recordings in the hall since David Zinman became music director in 1985.

Executive director John Gidwitz, who joined the orchestra in 1984, remembers hearing BSO musicians rehearse in a high school auditorium before the hall was built.

"You can't hope to have a great orchestra unless it has a home of its own," he says.

And you can't hope to launch great fund-raising campaigns. Before the hall was built, annual giving was about $700,000. Now is close to $3 million.

"Would the orchestra's $40 million endowment campaign have happened without the hall? No. Was it because of the hall? No. And that's the nature of the hall: It changed who we are -- how we function and how we are perceived -- so integrally and intimately that you can't separate it out and say what's the hall and what is us," Mr. Gidwitz says.

Instruction and inspiration

The growth of the symphony has also served as instruction and inspiration to arts organizations throughout the state, according to Sue Hess, chairman of Maryland Citizens for the Arts Inc., the statewide arts advocacy group.

Ms. Hess says that the commitment to constructing Meyerhoff Hall -- the state gave $10.5 million, Joseph Meyerhoff gave $10 million and the city gave $2.5 million -- helped create a favorable climate for the arts in Maryland.

"The building of the hall focused attention on the symphony and where the symphony was going to go when it had this hall," she says. "It showed Maryland what could happen to an arts organization with high standards and high goals. And as the symphony grew, so grew many arts organizations across the state."

BSO principal cellist Mihaly Virizlay, who has played with the orchestra since 1962, measures the success of the hall in part by the stability of orchestra personnel.

"I never see new faces now," he says. "Musicians no longer come here to try their luck and leave. They come here to stay because it's a great orchestra. It makes me feel wonderful to see the same faces on the opening night of a new season that I saw on the closing night."

From a physical standpoint, the hall is a comfortable home to musicians with its specially designed locker rooms, showers, dressing rooms and lounge. The addition of acoustical panels on stage confronted the musicians' complaints that they could not hear one another play.

"Almost no hall is ideal when you come down to it, but, on the whole, the musicians are very, very satisfied with the hall," says music director David Zinman. "And as far as the listener is concerned, it's wonderful."

Critics point out that modern building and fire code requirements make it very difficult to create a new hall with the splendid acoustics of such beloved turn-of-the-century halls as Carnegie Hall and Symphony Hall in Boston. But they rate Meyerhoff well. Telarc International president Bob Woods, for instance, says the hall has worked well -- after some adjustments -- for recording, while many new halls remain unsuitable.

Crazy about the hall

"I'm crazy about the hall," says David Patrick Stearns, music critic for USA Today. "There have been a lot of white elephant halls built over the past 20 years, and this is not one of them.

"The music you hear in the hall really has a nice resonance to it. In so many of these modern, all-purpose halls, the acoustics are like the inside of an oatmeal box. This has some resonance. You feel that the sound is moving around you rather than being absorbed like a sponge."

He attributes the success of the hall's acoustics partly to its size. With 2,465 seats, it is smaller than many of its contemporaries.

"These all-purpose auditoriums, these big barns, can accommodate touring ballets with a Nureyev or a Broadway show. But this hall is just for concerts, and that's good. All the great halls are like that. . . . Meyerhoff is among the top 10 halls in the country. Easily."

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