Horsing around with serious music


January 20, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

As you might have read, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is in the midst of re-inventing itself, trying to discover new ways of connecting to the community, building up and exciting audiences. The BSO is hardly alone in making such efforts.

Folks at the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky, for example, are concerned that the organization has what its board president calls, in a recent interview with the Courier-Journal, "an aura of aloofness." To counter that, a new music director who can be "a celebrity in Louisville" is being sought, more pops concerts are being contemplated, and, to attract the ever-elusive younger crowd, marketing efforts for the orchestra will emphasize "fun."

Fun has been a goal at the Utah Symphony, too, apparently. Recent examples of audience-directed extras include a light show during a Mahler symphony and dancers cavorting in the midst of the orchestra for Stravinksy's Firebird. The musicians' union "put its foot down, however," the orchestra's principal flutist and local union president Erich Graf said in an e-mail, "when we were told that a live horse would be brought on stage during a recent Halloween concert."

"None of these enhancements have increased audience size at all," Graf added.

I'm not surprised. While I applaud the determination of orchestras to fight for their lives, I'm not convinced that any amount of bells and whistles attached to such a tradition-crusted activity as a symphonic concert can bring to the box office previously uninterested listeners. And if you did manage to reel someone into the concert hall because of assorted "enhancements," aren't you setting yourself up for greater expectations - not for the actual music, but for more enhancements?

It will be fascinating to see how the ideas being floated around the BSO pan out. Most of the ones I've heard about - such as less formal concert attire, or tuning up backstage instead of out front in the usual, free-for-all manner - would not do any real damage to the artistic product. (Years ago, the National Symphony Orchestra used to do that backstage tuning; I thought it was neat seeing 100 musicians suddenly file in to take their seats en masse, ready to start playing.)

But I worry that folks at the BSO and other orchestras fretting over the bottom line might get carried away with this reinvention process, might fall for too many get-audience-quick gimmicks. Just as museums don't take priceless paintings out of their frames and stack them up against the wall in some funky, downtown-loft manner, orchestras can only go so far in making classical music more accessible and "fun." After a point, there wouldn't be anything classical about it.

Candlelight Concerts

A couple of weeks ago, Candlelight Concerts in Columbia presented the Pacifica Quartet, a decade-old ensemble that has made a particular specialty of the thorny quartets by the American dean of atonal composers, Elliott Carter. It was the prospect of hearing one of those works that drew me to the concert Jan. 10 at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre, but I neglected to reconfirm the program - turns out Carter was replaced by the less challenging Paul Hindemith.

Given the paucity of Carter's music around here, I was disappointed, but Hindemith doesn't turn up every day, either. And it was rewarding to hear the Pacifica players delve with such insight and tautness into the perfectly constructed, abstract, yet human-friendly world of his Quartet No. 3.

In Mendelssohn's Quartet No. 1 (as in the Hindemith piece), first violinist Simin Ganatra's tone was short on sweetness and fullness. But she and her colleagues did stylish, finely meshed playing, especially in the middle movements.

Getting back to Elliott Carter, the next Candlelight Concerts event promises his Woodwind Quintet, along with works by Ravel, Messiaen and Bernstein, played by the New York-based Windscape. The concert is at 8 p.m. Jan. 31 at the Smith Theatre, Howard Community College, Columbia. Call 410-480-9950.

Guest conductors

James Judd, who filled in for Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Yuri Temirkanov two weeks ago, will do so again this week. (Temirkanov is still recovering from the flu.) The British-born Judd, music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and music director-designate of the Malaysian Philharmonic, will lead the originally scheduled program of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, with Lang Lang as soloist, and Elgar's Symphony No. 1.

Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall. Call 410-783-8000.

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra welcomes another of its music director candidates to the podium next week - Kirk Muspratt, music director of the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra and former resident conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

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