Opinions vary on BSO's repertoire


Not everyone agrees with suggestion

January 07, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Somewhere back in the 1970s, I heard part of a Boston Symphony Orchestra radio broadcast that featured a most unusual work. It was Steve Reich's Four Organs, scored for - guess what? - four organs, along with maracas. This was back in the wild, early days of minimalism, when a single chord and some rhythmic pulsating could provide hours of listening pleasure (or torture, depending on the listener).

I'm not sure what such a work was doing on an orchestral program (the symphony players presumably were given something to do elsewhere in the concert), but I found myself glued to the radio as the music slowly unfolded. When it was over, the deep, steady, soothing voice of the Boston Symphony's beloved radio announcer, William Pierce, described the reaction in these calmly delivered words: "There seems to be a difference of opinion in the hall."

I'll say there was. In my then limited concert-going experience, I had never heard anything like it - boos, applause, shouts and hisses. I thought all that fuss was terrific. (I rather enjoyed Reich's music, too.)

The memory of that broadcast came flooding back as I checked out responses to my recent article advocating more diverse programming - a broader sampling of old and new music - at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. There seems to be a difference of opinion.

One correspondent accused me of "trying to promote the jungle beat of the 20th century" (an intriguing description, to say the least). The letter-writer described a childhood in Europe being "fed a menu which started with Bach and Handel and ended with Dvorak and Mahler. Now isn't this menu extensive enough for you? No way in hell will you persuade me ... to replace Beethoven or Mozart [with] a Carpenter or Paine."

I wonder if everything else in his life is similarly stuck in the past. If he's still wearing clothes from 1911 (the year Mahler died) and only reading pre-20th century literature, I might be more sympathetic to his viewpoint. And besides, I did not ask the BSO to replace Beethoven with another composer, past or present, but to complement Beethoven and the rest of the tried-and-true gang with a larger dose of less familiar, no less deserving fare.

Another letter-writer threatened to stop subscribing to BSO concerts if my wish list of composers and their works ever made it into reality. I wonder if he eats the same thing for dinner every night.

On the other side of the coin, I've heard from someone who already canceled a BSO subscription precisely because the orchestra has become "a moribund repository of 19th and early 20th century works by dead white European and Russian males." The "woeful lack of American music" was a particular concern for this former longtime BSO supporter.

Variations on these pro and con themes I've received indicate how strongly BSO audiences care about what is being performed - not just how - on the stage of Meyerhoff Hall. Pleasing everybody is impossible, of course, but it should be feasible to satisfy more than the dyed-in-the-Tchaikovsky types. Other orchestras successfully dip into the contemporary well and take longer drinks from it than the BSO; other orchestras successfully seek more under-performed works from the past. (Upcoming BSO performances of works by Busoni, Nielsen and Zemlinsky provide considerable encouragement on this score.)

Providing audiences with a varying and stimulating diet of music just seems like good sense to me. Art, after all, has as much to do with diversity and provocation as it does with comfort zones and entertainment. I'd love to be at a concert where folks registered their feelings about programming as forcefully as they do in letters. And where there was no mistaking a difference of opinion in the hall.

More performances

The BSO will introduce two notable Russian artists to its audiences this week. Vassily Sinaisky, former music director of the Moscow Philharmonic, will be on the podium, leading the orchestra in two tone poems by Richard Strauss and Dvorak's Cello Concerto. The soloist in the latter will be Alexander Kniazev, a prize-winner and subsequent judge at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $26 to $72. Call 410-783-8000.

The Municipal Opera Company of Baltimore will present Humperdinck's popular version of a classic fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday at Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church, 6200 N. Charles St. Advance tickets are $20, $17 for students and seniors, $14 for children 12 and under. Tickets at the door are $22. Call 410-329-6874 or 410-448-0745.

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