The Show Must Go On After 100 years, the BSO looks to a ‘certainly uncertain’ future.

Photo by Jordan August.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra recently celebrated 100 years of making music. But it likely will be the next 10 to 20 that will solidify the institution’s legacy — and ensure its continued existence.

The BSO has a unique history among the major orchestras in the country. It was founded in 1916 as a municipal orchestra — that is, a branch of the city government. It was reorganized in 1942 to be a private organization but has been plagued by financial difficulties over the years, including recently. Just over a decade ago, the BSO was facing a leadership deficit — the president, general manager and board chairmen all left within about a year of appointing current music director Marin Alsop — along with a financial one, to the tune of $16 million, which was eventually covered by dipping into the institution’s then $90-million endowment.

And though, by most accounts, the BSO has been on the upswing in recent years, let’s just say it’s hard out there for a professional orchestra. For even the most casual fan of classical music, this should be no surprise. Changing tastes, a sense of complacency, the wide availability of music and, conversely, the decreasing availability of music education in public schools have led to declining ticket sales and a rapidly aging donor base, an equation that adds up to increasing worries for these organizations.

“I think the challenges are real,” said Fred Bronstein, dean of The Peabody Institute and a former manager of several
orchestras. “And I think the challenges are around audiences. We know that audience trends have been changing — not just for orchestras; this affects a lot of the entertainment industry.”

Just in the past several years, orchestras in Detroit, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Chicago and Minneapolis have experienced lockouts and/or strikes. A few, mostly in smaller cities, have folded entirely under the financial pressure — Florida (based in Fort Lauderdale), New Mexico (based in Albuquerque) and Honolulu. The latter two were able to reorganize and relaunch (under new names), but the Fort Lauderdale-Miami-Boca Raton area remains without a professional symphony orchestra.

(But, as local snowbirds and classical music fans will know, the area isn’t totally without high-caliber classical concerts. In 2007, the Cleveland Orchestra began a — rather controversial — 10-year residency program in Miami.)

In 2011, and close to home, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the first of the major professional symphony orchestras — it is one of the “Big Five,” a somewhat outdated moniker that also includes the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Cleveland — to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

But these realities have had one silver lining; at least, that’s how those at the BSO would see it. Orchestras, including Baltimore, have started to think outside the box when it comes to appealing to new audiences and making classical music relevant for the modern age.

“There’s no shortage of challenges,” Bronstein said. “Having said that, I’ve never been a person who was pessimistic about orchestras because I think when you look at businesses generally, and how many succeed and how many fail, orchestras actually have a pretty good track record.

“I don’t think they’re institutions that are going away,” he added, “but I do think it’s incumbent on the orchestras to think very creatively about how that business needs to operate today.”

And thinking creatively they are. In just the past several years, the BSO has introduced new programming meant to engage the community, draw in younger audiences and educate children and families.

“It’s in every orchestra’s own best interest to be experimenting, to find ways that break the mold of what we’ve been doing for the past 50 to 100 years,” said associate conductor Nicholas Hersh, who oversees the Pulse series, educational programming and the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra, among other programs and concerts. “It’s not easy. It’s changing the course of a very large ship.”

Among the most successful of these new programs, and the crux of BSO’s experiment in attracting new audiences, is the Pulse concert series, which pairs the BSO with a popular indie band. Before the show, attendees enjoy drink specials and food vendors from local businesses in the lobby, along with performances from local bands that serve as the pre-show entertainment. The show itself starts with a classical set from a selection of BSO musicians, conducted by Hersh, followed by a longer set from the band and finishing with a handful of songs performed jointly with the band and BSO musicians. In the time between sets, Hersh and the band will talk a little bit about the music they’ve performed, interviewed by WTMD’s Alex Cortright.

Most recently, for the concert on Feb. 23, the orchestra was joined by Lake Street Dive, a show that drew a sold-out crowd, who, if the loud cheering and standing ovations were any indication, thoroughly enjoyed all sets. According to Rafaela Dreisin, audience development manager for the BSO, about half of the audience for Pulse shows are in their target demographic (ages 25 to 39), and a majority have never been to a symphony show before.

“I think that’s what’s most interesting about the Pulse series,” said Adam Kirr, a local millennial who was at the Lake Street Dive show and works on audience engagement for a different, also older genre of music as the marketing director for Charm City Bluegrass. “I had never been to the BSO and probably wouldn’t have, but bringing in bands that speak to a younger audience is a really smart way to get people interested in the orchestra.”

This is just the second year of Pulse, the seed funding for which came from a four-year Wallace Foundation grant. The first year was just developing the series and ensuring it would work, Dreisin said. Now, the orchestra is working at tying Pulse in with its other products, especially its Off the Cuff concerts, the shorter and more informal versions of traditional classical concerts.

Progress is slow, but early results are encouraging (while still being in the realm of realistic expectations). Nearly a quarter of recent Off the Cuff concert-goers were under 40 (which is about double of a regular classical concert), and 13 percent of the previous two were entirely new audience members, twice what the organization has seen at ones before that.

This was the goal of Pulse all along, says its creator and executive producer, Toby Blumenthal, who worked for the BSO for about eight years before recently moving to The Mann Center in Philadelphia, although he remains involved with Pulse. It took two years to develop and sell the idea, but its unique approach is catching on, and Blumenthal said he has bands and agents approaching him now to be a part of it.

“I thought this was an opportunity to not just entertain [the audience], but educate them and showcase the orchestra,” he said. “I wanted to create this series that would allow this audience to feel comfortable coming to the symphony hall.”

One of the keys to the concert series’ success — and a tactic the BSO is replicating in other programs like Off the Cuff — is its partnerships with local businesses and organizations, say both Blumenthal and Dreisin. The series has been presented in partnership with WTMD since the beginning, which allowed the BSO to get the word out to an audience that might not otherwise hear of it, Blumenthal said. Similarly, Dreisin said the relationships with local food and beverage vendors helps give the concerts the feel of being actually cool and unique and “not just an orchestra trying to be hip.”

“I feel like that’s really one of the best ways to reach new people in a way that feels legit to people,” she added. “It’s one thing for us to reach out and say, ‘We’re cool,’ but it’s easier if someone else — if Union [Craft Brewing] — is like, ‘Oh, BSO is cool.’”

If there was one recurring theme — in concept if not exact wording — in all the interviews the JT conducted for this story, it was “balance.” The new programs are popular, but it’s also important to the institution to remain “unapologetically classical,” as Dreisin put it.

Not everyone is going to be happy all the time, Hersh said, but people also recognize the reality that things have changed in the modern city.

“You’re always going to have some pushback on this,” he said. “There’s always going to be one person — maybe one person in the orchestra or one critic. But orchestra members especially are very aware of the state we live in right now, with the fact that subscription audiences definitely average over age 50 and are dwindling. That model is potentially unsustainable if we want orchestras to still be around in 100 years.”

Sandy Feldman, a subscriber since the 1970s and a member of the Baltimore Symphony Associates, the dedicated group of BSO volunteers, loves the traditional classical concerts but is actually delighted by the experimenting the BSO is doing. She went to a Pulse show once and called it “quite a different experience” but loved watching others be exposed to classical music in such a vibrant way. She’s not going to be a Pulse subscriber any time soon, she said, but she also recognizes that those concerts aren’t for her.

“It’s absolutely exciting,” she said. “I think that the BSO is definitely on the right track. They see what’s going on around the country, around the world. They are right in on the cutting edge.”

Looking to the future of the BSO, nearly everyone the JT spoke with saw the institution continuing on the innovative path it’s started — providing a combination of both new and traditional programming for a variety of ages, backgrounds and tastes.

“[The future] is certainly uncertain,” Hersh said. “Given political climates and everything these days, I’ve often been questioning, ‘Am I’m in the right line of work, am I really making a difference in the world right now?’ And then you think, ‘Well, actually, music is one thing that is actually really unifying.’”

In the end, everyone involved with the BSO is in no doubt about the importance of the institution and the access to great classical music it represents.

“I grew up listening to classical music and I think there’s always a place for it,” Dreisin said. “And I think there’s always a way to make it relevant.”

Hersh agreed.

“At its core, it’s really to improve quality of life, honestly, to improve people’s lives through these transcendent masterpieces we are so fortunate to work with here on a regular basis.”


This story originally appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times.

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