Edward Polochick is a born hugger. No one is safe from the conductor - musicians, fans, patrons, maitre d's, waiters - all will find themselves in a bear hug if he is within reach.
It's somewhat the same when he gets hold of a piece of music. Polochick passionately embraces not just the details (notes, tempo and dynamic markings) but the spirit behind them. The result is high-intensity musical communication.
A case in point is Handel's Messiah, which Polochick has conducted for many years with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at holiday time. The oratorio takes on all sorts of new character in his hands, with fast passages faster than ever, reflective ones extra-tender.
The Polochick touch also can be strongly felt whenever the Concert Artists of Baltimore perform. No surprise there; he founded this combination of chamber orchestra and chorus, which opens its 15th season Saturday.
When the 49-year-old Scranton native first floated the idea of forming the group, he was met with skeptical glances. After all, in a town that already boasted the BSO, the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and several choral groups, was there a need - or room - for something else? Could it just be a case of typical conductor ego?
"Partly, it was vanity," Polochick says with a laugh.
"I guess I thought I could do it better. I thought, why not have an orchestra that I can mold my own way, and have the choral component, and do my own kind of programming? A whole world of programming possibilities opened up once I had both an orchestra and chorus to work with."
By 1987, Polochick was typecast locally as a choral specialist, having been director of the BSO Chorus and Peabody Conservatory's choral ensembles since 1979 - jobs he got after receiving degrees in piano and conducting from Peabody. ("I had no business being put on the faculty at that time," he says.)
There were other gigs, too, including purely orchestral concerts with the BSO, mainly educational ones or appearances outside the city.
"But I was just a utilitarian conductor for them," he says. "I had been in Baltimore 10 years at that point, and I knew I wasn't gonna be music director of the BSO. I figured I could get out of town and try my chances somewhere else, or settle here and do something new."
With encouragement from David Zinman, then BSO music director, Polochick launched the Concert Artists on an initial budget of around $60,000. (It's closer to $300,000 today.)
"I cringe when I think of some of the performances we gave, but you have to start somewhere," Polochick says. "It's not easy for small groups to start from scratch and find a niche in the cultural life of a city, to raise money and get people to serve on the board. But we've been in the black from the beginning. That's because we've had some die-hard supporters from the very start. I'm very humble before them."
Among those supporters is Loraine Bernstein, assistant director and trustee of the Peggy and Yale Gordon Charitable Trust. A grant from the trust helped fund the inaugural concert.
"The first time I heard Ed was at an alumni event at Peabody," Bernstein says. "He was doing an analysis of Bach's Magnificat, and I just knew that this was someone with enormous ability."
She was receptive to Polochick's plans for a new musical organization. "Some people felt that he was just a choral conductor, but I always thought he had great talent in many, many directions," she says. "I think he was under-appreciated in Baltimore, and I thought his goal of a first-rate professional orchestra and chorus was admirable."
Bernstein remains one of the conductor's leading advocates. "He's never full of himself," she says. "He is always serving the music."
That music has ranged from Bach and Mozart to early 20th-century Danish composer Carl Nielsen and cutting-edge contemporary Chinese composer Bright Sheng. This imaginative scope has earned positive attention from journalists since the ensemble was formed.
This season will include a survey of Schubert's orchestral and vocal output on Saturday, a sampling of such notable American composers as William Grant Still and Aaron Copland in February, and a program of a cappella songs by English composers and Beethoven's Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano in May.
But it's another dose of Beethoven in December that probably will attract the most attention, when the Concert Artists move into Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for the first time. "I wanted to do something special to celebrate our 15th anniversary," Polochick says, "and I didn't want the program to focus just on the orchestra. I thought, why not Beethoven's Ninth?"
Thinking big may seem a stretch for a group that normally employs about 35 instrumentalists and 30 choristers - less than half the numbers normally associated with Beethoven's magnum opus.
Even with the planned augmentation of both orchestra and chorus, the forces still will be considerably smaller than is typically the case when this piece is performed.