Harrigan bids BCO farewell

Orchestra marks 20th birthday, and founding music director departs

October 14, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The odds weren't the only thing stacked against them.

There was the church sexton who inadvertently locked them out of a concert. There was the huge asbestos curtain that came crashing down five minutes before performance time, wiping out the conductor's podium and cello stands. And there were the audiences outnumbered by the players onstage.

But none of these things kept the musical forces behind the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra from sticking to their task, despite a lack of financial resources and the fact that new orchestras have about the same chances for lasting success as new restaurants.

This week, the ensemble celebrates its 20th anniversary season, making it the longest-running chamber orchestra in town.

It also marks the swan-song season of founding music director and Peabody Institute alum Anne Harrigan. She has decided to give up the commute from her home in Michigan (she has lived there since 1999 with her husband and daughter); she will continue to lead the closer Lafayette Symphony in Indiana.

"Twenty years ago," Harrigan, 44, says, "if you didn't play in the Baltimore Symphony, which also played for the opera then, you played for Patti LaBelle and church jobs. That's what you did with your Peabody education.

"A handful of people came together who wanted to explore doing something else, including a few BSO members who liked the idea of being able to make music on a more personal level, rather than just be one out of a hundred."

The enthusiasm persuaded Harrigan to turn down a Fulbright grant that would have taken her to Romania so that instead she could "throw my hat in" and organize a new ensemble. Initially, 25 players signed on.

"Anne brought the orchestra along single-handedly in the beginning," says Ted Jones, a member of the original trumpet section and a classmate of Harrigan's at Peabody who is now the BCO's orchestra administrator. "She ended up doing just about everything."

The first concert was given in Lovely Lane United Methodist Church, where the altar had to be dismantled to accommodate the orchestra.

It was the second concert at the church that the sexton forgot about, locking the players out; the performance eventually went on an hour late.

"Musicians agreed to split the take," says Jones of those initial performances.

The only trouble was that there wasn't any take to speak of; the players' first pay check amounted to a whopping $3.

"They got 50 cents a rehearsal," Harrigan says. "I kicked in $2,000 of my own money to keep things going."

Her investment paid off.

"Anne put together a really good orchestra from scratch and intended to take it as far as she could," says Jones.

Gilman School was the next venue for the BCO. It was there that the asbestos curtain came down with a crash, making the stage impossible to perform on.

"We decided to move our stands and play on the floor in front of the audience," Harrigan says. "That spoke a lot about the spirit of this orchestra. Everyone was so committed; they wanted to make this happen."

Eventually, the ensemble set up base at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium. There are still quite a few charter members in the group, which currently has a core of 40, including several BSO members.

From a budget of nothing, the orchestra has grown steadily deveoping what is currently a $535,000 operating budget. Concerts are frequently sold out; a loyal subscription base accounts for about 60 percent of the house.

"It's just as difficult to raise money as it was at the beginning," Harrigan says, "but we've had a positive cash balance every year."

Admirable music-making has been the norm, too.

"There is a certain chemistry we have onstage," Harrigan says, "a lot of cross-communication. Everyone feels invested in each performance."

To start the anniversary season on Wednesday, the conductor has programmed a work from the BCO's very first concert, Copland's Appalachian Spring. And, during the playing of a new piece by Jim Beckel called Make a Joyful Noise, a video montage of the orchestra's history will be shown.

Rounding out the program will be concertos for two pianos featuring the brilliant, award-winning duo of Valentina Lisitsa and Alexei Kuznetsoff.

The 2002-2003 season also offers a Christmas program, a clever selection of works by great composers honoring other great composers, Vivaldi's Four Seasons with Baltimore Symphony concertmaster Jonathan Carney, and a potpourri of some of Harrigan's favorite pieces in her final appearance as music director. There will be an extra event -- live accompaniment for Buster Keaton silent classics at the Senator Theatre.

"I think we'll keep varying the sorts of products we offer, like that silent movie concert, while staying within our basic mission," Harrigan says.

"After I leave, I'm sure some things will change and be better, but I think the orchestra's specific musical identity will stay the same."

When Harrigan first invested in the BCO, she faced intense skepticism.

"I still remember," she says, "when someone said to me, `Who do you think you are? Don't you know this has been tried before and failed?' Well, we made it to three years, then 10. After 10, we stopped worrying."

Concert

What: Baltimore Chamber Orchestra

Where: Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Tickets: $26, $20 for students and seniors; $8 for children 12 and under.

Call: 410-308-0402

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