Swan song for singers days away

Classical music: Letters and petitions to save the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus apparently fall on deaf ears.

Classical music

April 02, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Nothing, it seems, can save the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Not letters, even one from BSO conductor laureate Sergiu Comissiona. Not petitions, even one signed by 6,400 members of the greater Baltimore community.

This weekend, the full chorus is scheduled to give its final performances, ending a 32-year association with the BSO. (The women of the chorus are to make one more appearance in June for a Mahler symphony.)

In June, BSO president and CEO John Gidwitz wrote to the chorus to praise "its labor of love" and the many "memorable moments" it had helped the orchestra achieve in the 2000-2001 season. But on Jan. 12, he announced plans to disband the volunteer organization, saying that it wasn't "world-class" and that there wasn't money to help propel it into that category.

Questions about the wisdom of that decision have lingered ever since. They hang particularly heavy in the air now that the swan song is imminent.

Comissiona's reaction says a lot. In a letter to a Committee to Save the Chorus dated March 12, he expressed "sadness, dismay and shock" about the action, as well as disappointment "that this news is reaching me so late.

"As a founder of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus," Comissiona writes, "I should have been informed immediately of this decision. I conducted the BSO Chorus on numerous occasions from its inception until quite recently. The artistic growth was dramatic and for an amateur group, the chorus achieved a high level of professionalism and musical versatility ...

"Today, the Baltimore Symphony is one of the leading world-class orchestras. It would be, in my opinion, an immense loss for the Baltimore music community not to have the pride of not only our own orchestra, but also our own chorus ... I urge everyone concerned to reverse this unmusical and uncivil decision."

That's exactly what chorus members have been trying to do, most impressively with the petition drive. An attempt to deliver the signatures -- nearly 4,000 back then -- at a BSO board meeting March 11 was rebuffed; another attempt will be made this week, now that more than 6,400 have signed a statement urging the board to undo management's move.

It's impossible not to be impressed by the determination of the chorus in the face of obstinacy and very bad odds. There can't be many groups that could obtain 6,400 signatures on a petition about anything in less than three months. The chorus petition, circulated at some BSO concerts and throughout the metropolitan area, makes a substantial statement about the organization's tenacity. It also provides a measure of the community's attitude that cannot be blithely dismissed.

The names on that petition might not all be BSO subscribers or donors; they may not even all be concertgoers. But the orchestra is supposed to be a cultural resource for everyone, so the opinion of any person in the community should be considered worthy of attention. You'd think the least the board could do is accept delivery of the petition, even if it's destined for the nearest trash container.

As chorus members like to point out, the BSO receives city, county and state tax money, making it, at least symbolically, more of a public than a private institution. As such, its activities and decisions cannot help but invite scrutiny.

We're not dealing with a minor administrative matter. We're talking about 32 years of service, 1 million volunteer hours and the performance of 300 different works in 15 languages (according to figures provided by the chorus). We're talking a long list of critically acclaimed concerts and recordings.

The various arguments raised by BSO management concerning financial constraints, artistic shortcomings and even the public's disinterest in choral music seemed curiously unpersuasive in January. (If the public disliked symphonies by Mahler or Shostakovich, would the BSO stop playing them?)

Today, the decision to kill one of the nation's oldest symphony choruses, rather than make a fresh commitment to it and set new goals and standards for it, looks just as myopic.

Obviously, the orchestra must be the top priority at the BSO. A chorus is subsidiary. But having invested so much in time and effort, if not dollars, with this chorus, the BSO stands to lose quite a lot when the singers walk off the stage for the last time. It will lose a slice of its musical identity, a partner in many of its successes, an ensemble willing and eager to improve. No outside chorus, coming in for a gig, can bring that personal connection to the performance.

When I hear about how tough it was for management to end the chorus, I wonder if anyone at the BSO seriously considered any other options before pulling the plug. When I hear about how the BSO just can't afford the relatively low-cost chorus in these tough financial times, I wonder if a shortage of imagination in administrative circles isn't as troubling as any lack of dollars.

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