Composing a melody for success

BCO leader Thakar increased patrons for Minn. orchestra

December 01, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra got something more than a talented conductor when it selected a successor to founding music director Anne Harrigan in June.

Markand Thakar, mild-mannered professor for a great metropolitan conservatory and soft-spoken music director of a modest-sized orchestra in northeastern Minnesota, may turn out to be a classical music hero.

All right, hero is too strong a word, but, these days, anyone who can point to the sort of trend-bucking success that Thakar has generated seems more powerful than a speeding finale by Beethoven.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Today section listed an incorrect phone number for tickets to a Baltimore Chamber Orchestra concert. The correct number is 410-426-0157.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The New York-born Thakar, 49, has worked as an assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic and Colorado Symphony and served on the faculties at Penn State and Ohio University. Since the late 1990s, he has been co-director of the Peabody Conservatory's graduate conducting program.

Thakar hasn't had enough time to put his stamp on the BCO yet. This season's guest artists and programs, like the holiday-themed one he will lead tonight and Sunday at Second Presbyterian Church, were planned before the orchestra decided on a music director. (Each of the four finalists conducted a program last season.)

But "next season may be somewhat different," says BCO executive director Claire Braswell. As Thakar organizes the 2005-2006 lineup, he will be applying the experiences he has gained with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra after three years at that helm.

It's an experience that has caught the attention of an industry thwarted by declining, hard-to-excite audiences.

"We've long been interested in several aspects of their story," says Melinda Whiting, editor in chief of Symphony magazine, a publication of the American Symphony Orchestra League. A forthcoming article in the magazine will focus on the Duluth ensemble's "significant increases in audience and artistic interest," Whiting says.

When Thakar arrived, that orchestra was in the red and playing to 63 percent capacity of its 2,300-seat hall, the sort of dispiriting figure all too common nationally. (The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, on average, fills less than 70 percent of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.)

Today, the Duluth ensemble plays to an average of about 91 percent. Sold-out performances are hardly uncommon.

Many an American orchestra would just about kill to see a turnaround like that, let alone in three years. CEOs and consultants are working overtime all over the country to devise ways of reversing all the bad news.

"I'm being immodest here, but I have to say, I figured it out in Duluth," Thakar says. "We have gotten it done. We increased subscriptions more than 50 percent, even though the economy is tough up there, and there's a decreasing population." (Duluth's population is 87,000; Superior, Wis., which the orchestra also serves, is 27,000.)

What is the secret to this upbeat development? "It's simple in concept, maybe harder in practice," Thakar says. "You have to do marketing really well, you have to give people a reason why they should come once, and, once they're there, a reason to come back."

But that's what everybody tries to do, often at enormous expense and with considerable fanfare. What is driving Thakar's take on this philosophy?

"The answer isn't gimmicks, movies, speakers," he says. "It's about being moved by sounds. The more you can move people with sounds, the more they will come back. It's no sexier or more high-tech than that. It's like with a restaurant. The goal is to make food that tastes good, rewards the palate, gets people to come in. If you do that, they'll come back."

Thakar, a Fulbright Scholar with degrees from the Juilliard School, Columbia University and the Cincinnati Conservatory, honed his appreciation for music's potential to move listeners during two summers studying with Sergiu Celibidache.

This almost mystical Romanian conductor focused on the very essence of sound, the magical effect it can have on performers and listeners alike, even with the playing of single chord.

"What I learned from him," Thakar says, "is that the magical moment can, under the right circumstances, extend from the beginning of the first sound to the end of the last sound of a movement" in a symphony.

To entice more people to take a chance on being sonically moved, Thakar added his own spin to a tried-and-true marketing device. Where many ensembles build a program around a common theme, he built an entire season.

All seven classical programs played by the Duluth orchestra each season are linked. One hook was "Markand's Grand Tour," with works on each concert related by a national or geographic element. Cutesy titles like "French Kiss," "Fjord Explorer" and "The Czech's in the Mail" sweetened the bait.

Last season's thematic bond was "Seven Deadly Sins." Each program balanced a sinful item with a contrasting virtue. Envy and kindness, for example, were represented by works of Schumann and Brahms. William Grant Still's And They Lynched Him on a Tree had as its redemptive opposite Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

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