BSO experience needs some sizzle


Extend lobby hoopla to the concert hall

July 12, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Concerts don't begin with the first played note. The preamble - arrival at the hall, taking a seat, waiting for the music - can contribute substantially to the total experience.

For the past few years, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been addressing ways to improve that experience for its audiences. There has been a lot of talk about giving patrons a good time from the moment they find a parking space.

At the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the most obvious manifestations of this focus are the proliferating refreshment stands in the lobby. In the hall itself, I haven't noticed much of anything different.

Last weekend, at the opening of the orchestra's Summer Wine and Music Fest, there were the expected extra attractions outside the hall and in the lobby, before and after the concert. But I was struck by how little thought appeared to have gone into setting a mood or welcoming listeners inside the hall.

A faint whiff of amateurishness pervaded. It was as if no one remembered that a festival should be out of the ordinary. At the very least, it should feel personable. But no one said a word to the audience until about 45 minutes into the concert, which was poorly organized, with lots of waiting around for seat changes onstage.

A strange night, especially because reconnecting to the public is such a high [See Music, 6E] BSO priority.

Connecting to another public - for the first time - has been the orchestra's challenge since February in its second home, the Music Center at Strathmore in Montgomery County. Unlike at Meyerhoff, the BSO has enjoyed capacity crowds night after night at Strathmore, which makes the connection easier from the start.

But I haven't been impressed with what I've witnessed of the tweaking of the concert-going experience that has characterized the Strathmore residency.

One not-exactly-fresh idea - European orchestras often do this - is a mass entrance by the musicians, rather than the straggle-on-at-will-and-warmup routine seen for ages at Meyerhoff (and practiced by most American ensembles).

The all-at-once arrival can be effective, to be sure, if everyone moves quickly and smoothly enough. The BSO musicians have gotten better at it.

But they haven't demonstrated uniform finesse at the other change-of-routine - chitchat with the audience.

Before the start of each Strathmore concert I've attended, there has been a dangerous combination of player and microphone. Some of the rambling remarks I've heard - made in an effort to show how "normal" classical musicians are and to break down barriers - were just plain embarrassing. Not to mention long-winded.

I'm all for barrier-busting, but it helps if what's revealed on the other side complements the artistry that is supposed to be the real point of the concert.

Artistry certainly came through when violinist Ivan Stefanovic got his open-mike night a few weeks ago. He preceded his welcome-to-the-concert comments with an unexpected burst of solo Bach, played quite expressively. But I don't see how the novel mini-recital added much to the evening.

It seems to me that the BSO may be trying too hard at Strathmore, not hard enough at Meyerhoff.

Of course, retooling any symphonic machine is a tricky business. Giving listeners a new kind of ride is no less challenging. It will be interesting to see what other ideas get road-tested in the months ahead.

Percussion workshop

The Summer Percussion Workshop at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center offers daily sessions on such matters as mallet technique, sight-reading and audition techniques. Mentors include principal timpanists and percussionists from the National Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Free concerts will open and close the workshop. At 7 p.m. Monday, workshop faculty will perform works by Bela Bartok, Luciano Berio and others. At 6 p.m. July 22, the finale offers student performers and the Tempus Fugit Percussion Ensemble in a sampling of contemporary repertoire.

The public is also invited to hear some nitty-gritty activity - a student rehearsal at 7 p.m. July 20 and a clinic led by the Marine Band Percussion Section at 3:15 p.m. July 21.

All events are held at the Clarice Smith Center, University of Maryland, University Boulevard and Stadium Drive, College Park. Admission is free. For more i n f o r m a t i o n , c a l l 301-405-2787.

Cathedral concert

The Washington National Cathedral's free "Summer Festival Concert" next week features the Cathedral Choral Society, directed by J. Reilly Lewis, and the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Emil de Cou.

The chorus will sing the Solemn Mass for St. Cecilia by Charles Gounod.

In addition to conducting the Mass, Lewis will be the soloist in Francis Poulenc's 1938 Organ Concerto with the NSO. De Cou will also lead the NSO in Maurice Ravel's Pavanne for a Dead Princess and Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. July 21 at the Washington National Cathedral, Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues N.W. Admission is free. For more information, call 202-537-5527.

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