A smaller big band sound in city

Entertainment: A budget crunch forces the Municipal Concert Band to shrink its summer series, which begins today.

July 02, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

Its bandwagon, the famous bouncing ball and hectic music schedule are all gone. But when Baltimore's Municipal Concert Band starts its season tonight in Patterson Park, it continues a more than 100-year-old tradition of taxpayer-financed summer concerts that have disappeared from most other big American cities.

In Baltimore, too, the handwriting may be on the wall. Because of a budget squeeze, this year's season has been truncated to seven appearances between today and July 14 by the concert band of freelance musicians. A year ago, it played 11 dates.

A separate big band, led by Charles Funn, will play nine additional concerts this month.

"Back in the 1950s, at least four bands ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day, playing seven days a week," said George Gaylor, 61, who has been with the concert band for 41 seasons, first as a percussionist and then as its longtime conductor.

It's not that outdoor music has disappeared. In Patterson Park, eight other bands -- ranging from bluegrass to ragtime to Mayor Martin O'Malley's O'Malley's March -- have scheduled concerts this summer. But they are sponsored by Mercy Medical Center and Friends of Patterson Park, not by taxpayers.

The remarkable longevity of Baltimore's Bureau of Music, compared to such cities as New York and Chicago, might be because of the city charter. Despite frequent revisions, the charter stipulates that the director of recreation and parks is "to provide concerts, symphonies and other musical entertainment for the people of Baltimore City."

Kimberley A. Flowers, the rec and parks director, said she is conscious of that obligation. Although the summer concert budget has been reduced to $37,000, "as far as we are concerned, the future is bright," she said.

Baltimore's park concerts began in 1865, Kenneth S. Clark wrote in his 1932 book, Baltimore: Cradle of Municipal Music.

Such a title, he wrote, was warranted because Baltimore pioneered taxpayer-financed musical life in the United States. In fact, the 1916 debut of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra before a standing-room-only crowd in the Lyric Opera House was a city-sponsored event. Other efforts included the formation of a chorus and a competition for an official municipal anthem.

Because of a money crunch, the Municipal Concert Band will begin its season at 6:30 p.m. today without rehearsals, Gaylor said. Also gone is the 35-year-old showmobile, the latest of a series of bandwagons dating to at least 1926. Without a stage, there cannot be a bouncing ball, which was used for decades to underscore lyrics projected on a screen during audience sing-alongs.

Some things have not changed, though. The band still opens each concert with "Baltimore, Our Baltimore," the city's official anthem whose lyrics and melody are unknown to most current city residents.

As in the past, the concert band also retains 36 players. "That's something I wouldn't skimp on," Gaylor said.

The conductor, who retired this year after 40 years as a music teacher in city schools, acknowledged that audiences have kept shrinking in recent years. Maybe it's the old-fashioned repertoire -- anything from "In the Good Old Summertime" to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" -- or the lack of showmanship and pizazz.

That's what audiences want, though, Gaylor insisted.

"We tried back in the '70s to modernize, but they just didn't go for it," he said.

Park concerts enjoyed their greatest popularity from World War I until the outbreak of World War II, long before Baltimore homes were equipped with air conditioners to combat summer heat. One 1917 event in Druid Hill Park reportedly attracted an audience of 50,000, who sang war songs and patriotic songs.

Concert schedule

The Municipal Concert Band will play from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Today, at the Pulaski Monument, Patterson Park, Eastern and Linwood avenues.

Tuesday, July 6, at Burdick Park, Glenmore Avenue and Walther Boulevard.

Thursday, July 8, Canton Water Front Park, Boston Street and Ellwood Avenue.

Friday, July 9, St. Matthew's Church, Norman and Mayfield avenues.

Monday, July 12, DePaul House, 3300 Benson Ave.

Tuesday, July 13, Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5300 N. Charles St.

Wednesday, July 14, Northside Baptist Church, 1100 E. Northern Parkway.

Baltimore's Big Band will play from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Wednesday, July 7, Fitzgerald Park, Wilson Street, near Bolton Street.

Thursday, July 15, Village of Cross Keys, 5100 Falls Road.

Friday, July 16, Carroll Park, Washington Boulevard and Bayard Street.

Wednesday, July 21, Ashburton, 3935 Hilton Road.

Thursday, July 22, Ridgley's Delight, 600 Conway St.

Friday, July 23, Upton, Pennsylvania Avenue and Laurens Street.

Thursday, July 29, Wyman Park, Tudor Arms Avenue and 37th Street.

Friday, July 30, Beechfield, Yale and Beechfield avenues.

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