Alsop, BSO must find harmony

Board has given her the baton

now it must make peace with players

Classical Music: Commentary

July 31, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The dust will take a long time to settle after this month's stir at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, one of the starkest examples of a good news/bad news dichotomy the music world has seen in ages.

On one hand, the BSO made undeniably uplifting history by appointing the first woman as music director of a major American orchestra -- Marin Alsop, whose successful career on both sides of the Atlantic, unbridled championing of contemporary repertoire and flair for connecting with audiences made her an understandable choice.

On the other hand, BSO musicians -- about 90 percent of them, by their own count -- wanted the chance to consider other candidates, setting off an almost equally historic public squabble with the orchestra's board and management.

Newsprint and Internet sites, including the inevitable blogs, have been filled with evaluations of this curious affair.

A lot of the commentary has been aimed squarely at the musicians, their public defiance of management and, above all, what some view as the audacity of their apparent preference for someone other than Alsop. Other assessments of the BSO brouhaha take aim at the administration and board of directors for creating the atmosphere that led to the players' action. Still others spread the blame around.

It's no sour note

You would have to be naive to believe that the musicians took the exceedingly unusual step of going public with their objections simply because they're just impertinent, disrespectful whiners. To pretend that this is merely a matter of unruly employees who need to be punished is to welcome the inevitable self-destruction of a great musical institution.

The musicians clearly felt pushed against a wall, devalued and even betrayed. A constructive step would be for the board to now look into how this happened.

Alsop, who officially succeeds Yuri Temirkanov at the BSO helm in 2007, eventually will get over any bruises to her ego or her career; she's a tough contender in a tough business, and she's already making wisecracks about the whole business. But if the players don't recover soon, if the resentment lingers and festers, everyone loses.

Next season, management has to negotiate a new contract with the musicians. The odds for a successful conclusion don't look too hot right now.

The musicians have made hefty concessions in recent years to help the BSO save money. They've heard promises of bold fundraising and marketing initiatives, but they're still taking a hit in the paycheck and still playing to mostly modest houses at Meyerhoff Hall. (The BSO's second home, the Music Center at Strathmore in Montgomery County, has been packing them in, but the first home remains crucial to the organization's stability and future.)

In the end, this month's crisis over a new music director begs a tough, fundamental question: Whose orchestra is it, anyway?

The board and administration apparently believe they own it, lock, stock and Beethoven. And they're not about to let any pesky musicians tell them otherwise.

Alsop's assets abound

I have no trouble seeing the advantages to wooing Alsop. For one thing, no potential candidate for the BSO post could have caught the world's attention as she has, could have ended up as "Person of the Week" on ABC's World News Tonight or could have quickly generated stories in publications all over the place. It's important news that a woman has taken such a big step into what has traditionally been a man's world.

Alsop has much more than gender going for her, of course. Solid musicianship, broad tastes, an ability to get people enthusiastic about classical music -- you can't put too high a figure on such assets these days.

Still, Alsop can only be as good as the musicians playing for her. They have to believe in her, respect her, enjoy working with her. After seven visits to the BSO in three years, more than any other guest conductor, don't you think this orchestra would have been the first to go public in endorsing her appointment if everything about those appearances had been inspiring to a vast majority of the players?

To my own ears, Alsop's BSO concerts have offered a mix of strongly defined and not-quite-distinctive interpretations. And the orchestra has tended to sound less involved, less connected to the music, less impressive sonically with her than with Temirkanov and some other guest conductors.

It would hardly be unreasonable if the BSO players wanted to hold out for someone who clicked more consistently with them, who had a more tangible chemistry.

More than gender

There probably was something else. Musicians everywhere have deep concerns about music directors relating to job security and the working-place atmosphere, and there's always a certain fear factor in contemplating any big change. All of this must have affected the mood inside the BSO.

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