Shriver Hall, back from the brink

Thanks to Bill Nerenberg's common sense and hard work, once-moribund chamber music series now prospers

Classical music

August 22, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

On a cold evening last February, spring burst upon the Shriver Hall Concert Series.

All 1,118 seats were filled, and hundreds of ticket-seekers had to be turned away, for a recital by the young French pianist Helene Grimaud. This was a first in the 33-year history of the series -- Baltimore's oldest showcase for chamber music -- which only a few seasons earlier had seemed to be on the endangered list.

"It was a seminal event," says Bill Nerenberg, Shriver's managing director, of that evening's audience for Grimaud's recital. "It may have been my most exciting night in the music business."

That's quite a statement -- especially from someone who used to manage acts such as the Pointer Sisters and Patti LaBelle.

But it was an extraordinary event. Grimaud is among the most promising pianists of her generation, but she had never before drawn so large an audience for a recital -- not even in New York, Paris, Toronto or Los Angeles.

Baltimore made the turnout all the more unexpected. Less than 10 years ago, dwindling, aging audiences for Shriver concerts had led to an article in The Sun that predicted the death of chamber music here. It was, in effect, an obituary for the Shriver Series. Grimaud's sold-out house -- in which nearly a third of the audience appeared younger than 30 -- made such a death notice seem premature. Like Lazarus, chamber music had apparently risen from the grave.

Two years of hard work

But the audience that night had not been a miracle, and bringing it to Shriver had not been accomplished overnight. It was the culmination of two years of planning and hard work, much of it by Nerenberg himself, who was appointed the Shriver Series' first full-time managing director in 1997.

"It proved that chamber music, given the right marketing and enough care, could attract an audience," Nerenberg says.

When Nerenberg, 59, began working for the Shriver Series as a volunteer in 1995, subscriptions had dropped below 300 and concerts often took place in a hall less than half-filled. Under Nerenberg's guidance, the series has more than doubled its subscription base, doubled its budget from $150,000 to $300,000, and now possesses an endowment to ensure Shriver's future. Nerenberg has planned a drive, beginning Sept. 1, to boost the $150,000 endowment by $1 million.

"He's got intelligence, taste, energy and ideas," says Jephta Drachman, president of Shriver's board. "We're lucky that Bill arrived on the scene."

But resurrecting the apparently moribund series was not a matter of luck, Nerenberg says. "It was merely a matter of applying good sense to the marketing of what was already a good product. For 30 years, Shriver had been a mom-and-pop operation. That was fine in the days when most educated people had been exposed to good music when they were children and expected to hear it when they were adults. But since that's no longer the case, it was only to be expected that the series needed a little professional expertise."

What Nerenberg hadn't expected, however, was that he became the one to provide it.

High-pressure jobs

When he arrived from Los Angeles four years ago, Nerenberg assumed that he was about to begin enjoying a well-deserved retirement. His wife, Dr. Dorothy Rosenthal, had just left the department of pathology at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Hospital for a similar position at Hopkins.

Nerenberg had been working in high-pressure management jobs almost without interruption since age 19. Illness in the family had made it necessary for him to leave the University of Wisconsin after his sophomore year to run the family's chain of dry-cleaning stores. Nine years later, he was able to return to college at George Washington University in Washington as an English literature major.

But Nerenberg was a musician -- he plays several woodwind instruments -- and he free-lanced regularly in the district's jazz clubs. His musical activity led to a friendship with the noted jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, who persuaded Nerenberg to become his road manager. That, in turn, led to Nerenberg's affiliation with Hancock's L.A.-based management company, Adam's Dad. He spent the 1970s managing not only Hancock, but also such pop-music notables as Santana, Phoebe Snow and the Pointer Sisters. In the 1980s, he formed his own firm.

"When Dorothy decided to take the job at Hopkins, I decided I was ready to retire," Nerenberg says.

He was not ready, however, to give up his involvement in music. What he observed during his two years of volunteer work for the Shriver Series troubled him. "It was pretty bleak," he says. "In August of 1997, publicity for the whole '97-98 season was sent out -- fully six months too late for it to do any good. Less than a month later, I brought in a marketing plan. It was implemented immediately; I was offered a job; and I thought, `Why not?' "

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