Packed with refined revelers celebrating beneath a canopy of gold balloons, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall fairly glittered this past February. The attendees, however, had not gathered for merely another performance of works by Beethoven or Brahms or Dvorák by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
They had gathered, rather, to commemorate the BSO’s 100th anniversary and toast its status as a major American orchestra. But in addition to honoring the orchestra’s history, the event sought to demonstrate the BSO’s commitment to staying relevant now and into the future. Relevancy matters more than ever for classical music organizations. The financial crisis that began in 2008 caused many American businesses to radically reassess their operations: Some downsized, some shuttered. Arts institutions and nonprofits felt the pinch, too, including many of the nation’s most revered orchestras. The Philadelphia Orchestra declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011 (eventually emerging in 2013), and, also in 2011, the Syracuse Symphony folded. Close observers of the classical music community—such as critic and composer Greg Sandow (on ARTSblog) and Emily Grannis, a former Bloomberg News writer—averred that the economy wasn’t entirely responsible. Where was the effort, they wondered, by that community, so invested in preserving tradition, to engage new audiences?
Paul Meecham, president and CEO of the Baltimore Symphony from 2006 through the end of this past June, when he took over the same posts with the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera, is inclined to agree, in part, with those critics.
“Orchestras have to be relevant to the audiences they hope to draw from, and I would say that orchestras in general have spent the last 50 years really burnishing the quality of what they already do,” says Meecham, 59. “So while that focus on getting better and better has been good in one sense, it’s also meant that orchestras have lost sight of the need to connect with the populice and be a popular attraction.”
Accordingly, with its February gala concert, the BSO issued something of a mission statement—akin to “Duty Now for the Future,” as the innovative new wave band Devo put it back in 1979—regarding establishing that connection by increasing its efforts to bring classical music to unfamiliar audiences. The program included the premiere of “MOXIE,” by the eclectic and purely modern composer Kristin Kuster, the first in a series of 10 commissioned pieces for the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 seasons, and, not incidentally, written to honor the orchestra’s music director, Marin Alsop. Also performed was Mason Bates’ “Mothership,” famously co-premiered by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra in 2011 and known for its mashup of electronica and classical music. The program concluded with students from the BSO’s Youth Orchestras and OrchKids surrounding the audience to join the professionals onstage for Ravel’s “Bolero.”
“I’m not sure how conscious this was, but it certainly ended up that we were performing all music that had been written after 1916, when we were founded,” Meecham notes. “That was a statement in and of itself. We knew we wanted to in some way both reflect the past, but mostly spend the concert looking at the future.” In recent years, maestra Alsop has dramatically upped the number of works written by living composers on BSO programs, including several by Baltimore’s James Lee III, whose “Thurgood’s Rhapsody”—a robust paean to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and one of the aforementioned 10 commissioned pieces—was premiered by the orchestra this past June. “Marin has successfully positioned the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as a global new music leader even as she has attracted younger audiences,” says Jordan Randall Smith, 33, music director of the Baltimore- based chamber orchestra Symphony Number One. “The BSO is sort of an institutional mentor for Symphony Number One and the other groups making up the thriving new music culture of Baltimore. I have no doubt that our ability to grow as a small chamber orchestra devoted to emerging composers has some- thing to do with the increased general appetite for interesting concert experiences which the BSO has helped to drive. James Lee III is a fantastic local composer, and I can’t say enough about how great it is to cultivate homegrown talent just as we also import interesting international voices.”
But the effort to showcase a more modern orchestra doesn’t constitute everything the BSO has been doing to appeal to new listeners. “I think there’s no single silver bullet in this,” Meecham says. “You’re trying a number of different things, and all of them speak to the fact that we’re trying to pull the walls down—not to make ourselves impenetrable, but be accessible and be something that people say, ‘that’s cool.’”
To that end, in September 2015, the BSO launched a new concert series, Pulse, which invites indie bands from Baltimore and beyond to play alongside the orchestra. Its aim: Capture an elusive millennial audience. Funded by a grant from the Wallace Foundation, a New York-based philanthropy, Pulse was co-founded by BSO Associate Conductor Nicholas Hersh and frequent BSO project partner Toby Blumenthal, both millennials themselves. To date, the series has matched Dr. Dog with the orchestra to perform Stravinsky, and Dawes with the works of Baltimore’s own Philip Glass.
“In everything we do, we have to be cognizant of how we’re presenting ourselves in a way that doesn’t turn off new people,” says Hersh, 28. “It’s an issue of re-engaging an audience, my own generation. The millennial generation sometimes seems to have skipped over the interest in classical. It seems like people have been coming to see the headlining indie band, and then they realize when we do our classical side, ‘Oh, this is also really interesting as well.’”
Outside observers have taken note.
“My general opinion is that the BSO is really trying and doing a lot of good things,” says Will Ryerson, a local musician and millennial whose experimental-pop indie band, Other Colors, played a pre-concert Pulse show in the Meyerhoff lobby this past November, before headliners Wye Oak took the stage with the orchestra.
As a former music teacher at Mary Ann Winterling Elementary (part of the city’s public schools system) from 2010 to 2013, Ryerson, 32, has also seen the work of the BSO’s OrchKids program firsthand. “In terms of other major orchestras, the BSO is very aware of the community it’s in,” he says. “The Pulse series is a good way to draw in new audiences. The concert we opened for was sold out. At the show it was asked: ‘Raise your hand if this is your first time at the Meyerhoff,’ and a large percentage of hands went up.’”
With OrchKids, launched in 2008, the BSO has focused its energies on an even younger audience. The in-residence program brings classical music to pre-K through 10th grade children in six Baltimore City public schools, including Lockerman-Bundy Elementary, Booker T. Washington Middle School for the Arts, Patterson Park Public Charter School and Mary Ann Winterling, where Ryerson taught.
“Music education and instruction,” Meecham explains, “certainly in public schools in the city at least, is unfortunately a thing of the past. OrchKids has been going eight years, and the Youth Orchestras [three different ensembles consisting of talented young musicians from the mid-Atlantic region] has been going four years. These are long-term commitments in their early stages. You have to take a long-term view if you’re trying to build audiences for the next hundred years. You’ve got to sow the seeds.”
Ken Lam concurs. As the BSO’s out-going associate conductor for education, he has overseen the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestras (BSYO) for the past four years. “Building an audience is basically building relationships, often one person at a time,” explains Lam, 46.
“Exposure is the key: exposure of classical music to our students, and also, through BSYO concerts and outreach events, exposure of classical music to our community as a whole.
“We start our students early, with three orchestras ranging from elementary- school age to high school. Of course, participating in a youth orchestra gives young people a firsthand appreciation of the incredible music that we get to play. We are fortunate to have access to artists and composers who are visiting the BSO as well as BSO musicians. Our students look up to the professionals, and they come and support them at their concerts and they become great advocates of our orchestra.
“Through BSYO, we cultivate a younger audience but hopefully also a more diversified one. For instance, through our scholarship program, no student is prevented from joining BSYO because of lack of means. It also provides further ensemble opportunities for members of OrchKids.” Pulse. Programs spotlighting the work of emerging composers. OrchKids. The Youth Orchestras. Indisputably, the BSO has made strides toward laying a foundation for developing, attracting and keeping younger concertgoers. But Meecham understands that the task remains daunting and unfinished.
“I always like to equate the arts with sports,” he says. “Sports have done a much better job in connecting with their audiences. It’s the sports that have kind of preserved traditions, like golf, for instance, that are the ones that are really struggling. Tradition is all well and good, but if you’re not relating to the next generation by mixing things up, you’ll find your older audience dies off, and then where are the younger people? I think classical music has some work to do to make sure it stays relevant.”