Battle of the Bands

When the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra begins conducting business in affluent Montgomery County, competition will be right around the corner.

July 25, 1999|By STEPHEN WIGLER | STEPHEN WIGLER,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Symphony won't call it an invasion.

The National Symphony in Washington won't say anything at all.

But Tuesday's performance at Wolf Trap Park of an all-Russian program by the BSO and music director-designate Yuri Temirkanov may be the opening skirmish in what could be called the Battle of the Bands.

The BSO has played before at Wolf Trap, the performing arts center in Fairfax, Va., which is the summer home of the National Symphony Orchestra. But this will be the Baltimore orchestra's first venture into NSO country under the Russian-born Temir-kanov, one of classical music's most admired maestros and the most distinguished musician ever to occupy the BSO's podium.

It will also be the first time that the Washington orchestra's audience will hear the BSO with a conductor whose reputation exceeds that of the NSO's own music director-conductor, Leonard Slatkin.

Tuesday's Wolf Trap concert may be a taste of things to come for the Washington area's classical-music audience. Because in less than three years the BSO is scheduled to begin regular performances in its second home, a new 2,000-seat hall in Bethesda in Montgomery County, less than 10 miles up the road from the NSO's home at the Kennedy Center.

It will be the first time in American symphonic history that two major orchestras of similar quality will perform within such close proximity, says Charles Olton, the president of the American Symphony Orchestra League.

The results for each orchestra, Olton adds, could be either "wonderful" or "devastating."

The BSO president, John Gidwitz, says he expects the first of those possibilities.

"The new performing arts center in Bethesda will create a tremendous upsurge of interest in classical music among the citizens of Montgomery County," Gidwitz says. "This will prove beneficial to both orchestras because it will stimulate each of them to do their best."

But at the NSO, which learned of the BSO's plans to expand into Montgomery County last year, Gidwitz's counterpart, Robert Jones, isn't saying anything. He did not return several phone calls to his office made in the last two weeks. And music director Slatkin, after first agreeing, canceled an interview about the subject earlier this month.

Meanwhile, members of the orchestra were instructed not to talk to a Sun reporter about the possibility of competition between the two orchestras.

"They [NSO administrators] are clearly a little nervous," says one NSO musician, who asked not to be identified.

And it's equally clear why the BSO wants to move into Montgomery County.

Put simply, selling tickets to cultural events in Montgomery is like shooting fish in a barrel. The area has the sort of demographic profile that the marketing departments of museums, orchestras, theaters and other cultural institutions dream about. Its 846,000 residents make it Maryland's most populous county -- it is larger than either Baltimore City or the District of Columbia. And, according to 1995's updated census figures, county residents are the state's best educated (more than 60 percent of adults have advanced degrees beyond the B.A.) and wealthiest (more than one-third of its households report incomes of more than $75,000).

Education and income are two prime indicators of concert-going. Another is age -- older people tend to be stronger arts patrons. And the highest growth rate in the county's population over the last 10 years has been among those older than 74 (an increase of 42 percent), followed by 45-64 year-olds (30 percent) and 65-74 year-olds (20 percent). Moreover, a 20 percent increase in population has been predicted by the year 2010. And the relocation of several major federal agencies to the county has enabled an increasing number of Montgomery residents to work where they live, rather than commute to Washington.

This makes Montgomery County residents precisely the kind of people for whom the BSO would like to perform. In fact, "like" may be too weak a verb.

"We now are at the outer limits of what our market [in the Baltimore area] can support and we know that you can only move forward or you begin to slip back," Gidwitz says. "Moving into Montgomery will give us the population base to fulfill our needs."

The BSO currently draws 70 percent of its 28,000 subscribers from the combined populations of Baltimore City and Baltimore County. The contrast between its current market and the one in which it will seek new subscribers is dramatic. According to census figures, in Baltimore City and County combined, there are 77,560 households with incomes exceeding $75,000; Montgomery County, which has about half the population, has twice as many (more than 156,000) such households.

Another way to look at the difference in wealth between the two areas is to note that in Baltimore City and County there are about 135,000 persons living at or below the poverty level; in Montgomery County, there are less than 44,000.

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