Have we reached the musical saturation point in Baltimore?
I wondered about that over the weekend, starting with Friday's sparsely attended Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert at Meyerhoff Hall. There were a fair number of empty seats the next night in a much smaller venue - Concert Artists of Baltimore's season-opener at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills. And on Sunday afternoon, when the BSO's principal trumpet, Andrew Balio, and up-and-coming pianist Inna Faliks gave a free recital at Second Presbyterian Church. Now that I think about it, there weren't too many folks at the Peabody Trio's concert last Wednesday, either.
If these had been mundane performances by provincial artists, such turnouts would not have made me think twice. But each of these examples happened to boast music-making of considerable quality, the sort that helps to make the Baltimore area a significant cultural spot. So where was everybody? Don't they realize how good the music-making is around here?
I suppose there's some small comfort in the fact that people ask the same question all over the country; even in New York, reports of scant attendance for worthy things are not unknown. Blaming the crummy economy is the usual response (inapplicable to free concerts), along with bemoaning the aging of the audience for classical music or the lack of music education in schools. Whatever the cause, the situation has to be driving many an organization's management to distraction - if not drink.
It could be that it's unrealistic to expect any community to absorb as much stuff as we get offered almost every week. And if musical groups and concert series, large and small, can somehow keep on plugging even when attendance is spotty, maybe that's what counts most.
Still, I'd sure like to see more people - on a regular basis - experiencing what Baltimore has going for it musically. Every time I see a small audience, I wonder if it means we'll soon lose a musical asset. (Might as well come clean - there's a wee bit of self-preservation in my thinking. I need the music to go on, just as much as musicians and presenters do.)
By the way, if there's anyone out there who doesn't bother with concerts because it's easier to slip another compact disc into the stereo set (and people won't be unwrapping candy next to you), you're missing a lot. I have great recordings of Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 2, for example, but I still got knocked out by being there to hear the gorgeous things Sergiu Comissiona and the BSO achieved with the former on Friday and the incisive way Edward Polochick and the Concert Artists approached the latter on Saturday.
No sound system fully captures what music sounds like being made before your very ears, especially in such acoustically inviting spots as Meyerhoff, the Gordon Center and Second Pres. The total experience of concert-going - aural (including ambient noises), visual and physical - can be terrifically satisfying, unique to each time and place. The more communal the experience, the better, with energy flowing from stage to audience and back again.
I'll try to hope that this recent rash of under-attended performances doesn't portend anything terribly dire and merely reflects the natural, cyclical order of public enterprises. With luck (not to mention more money and marketing), more folks will materialize in the days ahead. As even a cursory glance at the remaining action-packed season schedule makes plain, you ain't heard nothin' yet.
Getting back to the Concert Artists of Baltimore, artistic director Polochick highlighted the talent in both wings of the organization, instrumental and vocal, Saturday at the Gordon Center and also reaffirmed his noteworthy talent for galvanizing musicians.
Mozart's ineffably beautiful Sinfonia Concertante showcased concertmaster Jose Miguel Cueto and principal violist Jennifer Rende. Cueto's tone was a little short on distinctive coloring, but his understanding of the music's refined architecture paid off handsomely. Rende produced a lush tonal palette throughout. Both sculpted phrases with great sensitivity; their shared cadenzas reached particular heights of eloquence. Polochick was, as usual, a model partner and he had the small orchestra, which sounded twice its size, articulating warmly.
Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 2, Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), superficially resembles the layout of Beethoven's Ninth. But Mendelssohn does not attempt a world-embracing statement here. Rather, he lays out a lyrical argument first with the orchestra, then adds the chorus to sing of thanksgiving for divine goodness. This symphony will never replace the Third and Fourth in the public's affections, but more performances as energized and poetic as this one could well improve its standing.