Many blessings in area's musical circles, but tough times are ahead

CLEF NOTES

November 27, 2008|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,tim.smith@baltsun.com

Music lovers have a lot to be grateful for in this area: An orchestra of international standing, along with several smaller ensembles, all producing remarkably effective performances on a regular basis. A fine, full-sized opera company, along with some of more modest dimensions, all trying to serve the vocal art with distinction. Excellent choral and chamber groups. A vibrant, history-rich conservatory. And much more.

But, on this Thanksgiving Day, the gratitude mingles with trepidation. The economic meltdown is taking a daily toll on music organizations. Those fortunate enough to have achieved financial stability are now dealing with erosion of endowment funds and contributions, if not dwindling ticket sales, too. Institutions used to living hand-to-mouth are finding it harder than ever to make ends meet.

The Baltimore Opera Company and Baltimore Chamber Orchestra appear to be hanging on by a thread or two. My guess is that others will send distress signals before long, as the downturn deepens.

There's clearly something tougher about these tough times than in past recessions, and there's every chance that things will get a lot worse before they get better. Arts organizations, by their nature, tend to be fragile, depending so heavily on the generosity of private individuals, corporations, foundations. And art is expensive, at least if quality is the goal.

Unwise management decisions can threaten an arts group's stability as severely as any turmoils in the economy. You can hear plenty of recriminations as people wonder how some institutions could have slipped so far, but the blame game isn't particularly useful right now.

We need to see solid game plans for turning things around. Maybe it's worth taking a look at the cities in the country that have tried a United Way-type campaign for the arts. Maybe some strategy of sharing resources could be useful in providing short-term fixes for the most severely threatened organizations, while long-term solutions are developed.

Certainly, our whole community will be hurt by any decline in our local musical products, any bankruptcy or suspension of activity, so our whole community needs to step up to the plate in one way or another. Organizations that have relied too heavily on too few donors for too long will have to expand their reach and their appeal. And donors, even those who are seeing their own personal fortunes adversely affected, will have to decide that it's worth staying in the picture anyway because the alternative - seeing music institutions fail - is unacceptable.

It's hard to believe there isn't enough money in the Baltimore area to keep all the music going. Here's hoping that the months ahead will see that money flowing and the steady financial improvements for all those organizations currently or potentially on the casualty list.

Of course, I have a personal motivation in all of this - I'd make a lousy crime reporter.

Alsop, BSO hit fresh peak

Marin Alsop's commitment to new music has been a substantial part of her career and reputation, and it promises to be a hallmark of her tenure on the podium of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. As it turns out, her taste in composers is close to that of one of her BSO music director predecessors, David Zinman, and that includes a mutual affinity for the work of Christopher Rouse.

His Concerto for Orchestra, dedicated to Alsop, was premiered at the conductor's Cabrillo Festival in California back in August and received its East Coast premiere from the BSO last weekend. It's a knockout.

The composer doesn't just honor the tradition of this genre, which is all about showing off each section of the orchestra and the ensemble as a whole. He goes for something deeper and more eventful, creating the feel of a full-blown, Mahler-weight symphony, but condensed to a single, tightly packed movement of about 25 minutes. And for all of the virtuoso material in it, the piece is never about displaying talent. It's about ideas, many of them quite ominous and even a little scary.

The ear is hooked right at the start, with strings racing wildly into a strange sonic landscape. Toward the end, there is a passage for violins playing at their highest range while brass chords appear with the suddenness and unnerving effect of oncoming headlights during a lonely drive on a dark night. There are many other intriguing sounds, including frantically chattering woodwinds and a striking high/low contrast that pits violins against basses.

A major thematic statement emerges from the basses playing what appears to be a reference to the closing measures of the Prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. That angular theme expands into a full-throated lament for the English horn and works its way through the orchestra, as the music undergoes a startling variety of tone coloring, frenzied counterpoint and anxiously twisting harmonies. The concerto offers moments of eerie repose along the way, but ultimately expends its energy with the thump and drive of heavy metal.

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