Alsop brings new era to BSO

Season begins in a tone of vitality

September 23, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that takes the stage this week bears only superficial resemblance to the one that glumly gathered two years ago.

That September, multimillion-dollar deficits, looming contract negotiations and the musicians' lingering ill will over management's selection of a new conductor seemed heavy enough to sink the venerable Baltimore institution. But today's BSO is revitalized and refocused, eager for the launch of a new season that will be closely watched by the national TV and print media.

Two words explain this extraordinary turnaround: Marin Alsop.

Others have played a part in the orchestra's reversal, but the dynamic, wry, 50-year-old Alsop has proven to be a remarkable catalyst for what is called, around the BSO, "the beginning of a renaissance."

She appears to have overcome the public outcry from orchestra members, triggered by the July 2005 announcement that Alsop would succeed distinguished Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov as music director two years later.

Meanwhile, BSO finances have improved markedly. An accumulated deficit of more than $17 million was retired using endowment funds, and last season's budget was balanced. Fund-raising and subscription sales have seen double-digit increases. And average attendance in Baltimore, which had fallen to just over 60 percent, is projected to exceed 75 percent this season - thanks in part to a grant that underwrote an unprecendented $25-a-seat subscription deal for this season.

On the artistic side, the orchestra's first commercial recording since the late 1990s, John Corigliano's Red Violin Concerto, with Joshua Bell as soloist, reached No. 1 on the Billboard classical chart this month. A series of BSO performances on XM Satellite Radio will be launched with the live broadcast of Thursday's season-opener.

"There seems to be a lot of positive momentum in Baltimore," says Henry Fogel, president and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League, a music industry organization in New York. "All of this energy is certainly being noticed in the orchestra field."

"Marin is the central impetus for all the things that have helped to make the turnaround possible," says BSO President and CEO Paul Meecham, who joined the organization a year ago, shortly after Michael Bronfein was elected board chairman. Both arrivals greatly improved morale.

Alsop's "appointment was the key event for Michael to become chairman, and certainly for me to ever consider coming here," says Meecham, a former top administrator with orchestras in New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

Despite their chilly start, Alsop and the BSO players have developed an upbeat relationship. The thaw quickened after the 2006 departure of managers who were unpopular with most musicians.

"I always believed it would be fine," Alsop says. "I really did. Otherwise I wouldn't have gotten into this situation. The organization feels more unified than it did in the past."

Still, the BSO faces challenges. Like most orchestras, it has been dealing for years with the trend of aging audiences and dwindling funding sources. Despite the recent financial gains, the 2007-2008 season will hardly be pressure-free: Some contractual concessions last year - an orchestral pay freeze and two weeks of unpaid vacation - will expire. Nor is anyone expecting million-dollar grants.

"We are looking at launching an endowment campaign next year," Meecham says. "It's about $55 million now and needs to be up over $100 million.

"We must prove to everyone that we can maintain stability. But we feel confident that we can make the goal, because of the amazing ticket sales and the enthusiasm about Marin."

The `woman issue'

Generating enthusiasm and buzz seems to be an Alsop specialty.

Her status as the first woman to be named music director of a major U.S. orchestra produced instant global press in 2005. Shortly after, she became the first conductor to win a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."

Alsop doesn't spend time dwelling on the historical nature of her BSO appointment.

"The woman issue is a little old," she says. "That's so '80s - been there, done that and got the T-shirt."

A native New Yorker, Alsop wasn't easily dissuaded from entering a field dominated by men.

In the early 1980s, when she couldn't get into the conducting program at the Juilliard School, she founded her own orchestra to gain experience. She went on to study with her childhood idol, Leonard Bernstein, and became music director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, a post she held for a dozen years. In 2002, she was the first woman to be named principal conductor of a major British orchestra, the Bournemouth Symphony.

"I know that everyone makes a point about her being a woman conductor," says Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, where Alsop and the BSO will perform in February. "But it's important to say that she's [succeeded] not because she's a woman but because she is a wonderful artist."

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