Straddling two worlds in coverage of Baltimore's musical ambassadors

October 03, 2004|By Paul Moore

THE BALTIMORE Symphony Orchestra is the best-known and arguably the most important fine arts organization in Maryland. That is why two separate articles in the Sept. 25 edition of The Sun were so revealing. That one reported on financial issues and the other examined artistic endeavors clearly illustrates the two poles of reality in which the BSO, and those who cover it, coexist.

The front-page story described how the BSO, with debts mounting and subscriptions and endowments declining, is proposing to sell Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to a new, nonprofit subsidiary and then lease it back. The deal would use tax-exempt bonds to help fund new programs and eventually reduce the growing deficit.

On the Today section front, a concert review described "the visceral impact of hearing great music being made with passion, conviction and insight. ... If you could somehow singe enough people with this kind of experience, the outlook for classical music would be decidedly upbeat."

Sun music critic Tim Smith wrote the review and was co-author of the financial plan article. If the BSO is more than ever straddling two worlds - financial and artistic - so is Mr. Smith. He is a critic and a news reporter.

Like sports reporters and columnists, it is not Mr. Smith's job to be a cheerleader or public relations agent for the orchestra. "I believe I can report the news and analyze the musical performances without skewing either one," Mr. Smith said.

It has been a tumultuous year for the BSO. When music director Yuri Temirkanov announced last month his decision to step down after the 2005-2006 season, it was the latest in a series of changes in the organization. Since last winter, when James Glicker was named chief marketing officer - he was later promoted to president - staff turnover has been significant.

Mr. Smith wrote an analysis explaining how much Mr. Temirkanov, considered one of the world's greatest conductors, will be missed. It also put his departure in the context of the marketing initiatives that the BSO's managers hope will help improve the financial picture. Reader Timothy Kjer responded: "If the BSO needs a mascot so badly, couldn't they have someone dress up as Tubby the Tuba? Few conductors can be artistic geniuses and cheerleaders. Temirkanov is a genius, probably too good for the provincial mentality of Baltimore."

This viewpoint may be a bit harsh. The BSO's projected deficit by 2008 is $12 million. The outlook for symphony orchestras across the United States has never been worse. Most of the 1,200 orchestras are running deficits, and in most instances attendance is declining. Recording contracts for orchestras such as the BSO have disappeared.

Symphony managers are searching for answers and are considering a variety of options to entice younger people into the concert halls. Attendance at the Meyerhoff is slightly more than 60 percent capacity, and Mr. Glicker has set 80 percent as a goal.

Like many other organizations, the management of the BSO is trying to ensure that its mission and its marketing plan are well known. They are sometimes quite uncomfortable, however, when reporters seek to go beneath the surface and behind the scenes to get the story.

Mr. Smith can relate to this. Last spring, he learned that BSO executives had decided to name Mr. Glicker president. As Mr. Smith was writing the story, executives called The Sun requesting that the article appear only on a timetable they had approved.

"They were very annoyed," Mr. Smith said later. "I was being stonewalled because I learned of things they did not want out at that time. But I was concerned that nobody was asking tough questions, and I knew we could not sit on the story." It was published two days after the BSO phone calls.

The Sun's serious coverage of the BSO reflects its importance to the image of Baltimore regionally and beyond. Other than the major sports teams, the orchestra is the most visible entity from the city that travels nationally and internationally (the Morgan State University Choir also tours extensively). "It definitely adds substantially to the notion of Baltimore being a civilized, cultural place to live," said Holly Selby, The Sun's arts and entertainment editor.

Mr. Smith remains committed to providing the best coverage of the BSO, despite difficult circumstances and changing priorities. But his perspective as a classical music expert and enthusiast, he is very worried.

"I don't know how you solve the problem of declining interest. If you can't sell a brilliant conductor and an orchestra playing fabulously and you can't connect to the music, I don't know how you can stem the tide."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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