D.C. Philharmonic Is Tuning Up for Debut

The Music Center at Strathmore will host the first concerts by the D.C. Philharmonic. Soloists include Denyce Graves and Harolyn Blackwell.
The Music Center at Strathmore will host the first concerts by the D.C. Philharmonic. Soloists include Denyce Graves and Harolyn Blackwell. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009

As arts organizations across the country cut costs and trim their schedules, Washington is getting a new orchestra.

The D.C. Philharmonic held a news conference yesterday to announce its maiden concerts April 9-10 at the Music Center at Strathmore -- an ambitious program of Michael Torke's "Bright Blue Music," Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" and Gustav Mahler's towering Second, or "Resurrection," Symphony. Denyce Graves and Harolyn Blackwell are the featured soloists.

And according to John Baltimore -- the 30-year-old conductor who in a mere few months has brought this fledgling organization to life -- the ensemble will represent a new model for orchestras, funding itself by turning to a market he describes as "untapped."

"You just don't find this level of educated upper-middle-class African American income anywhere else in the United States," he said yesterday in an interview.

Added Baltimore: "I am an African American myself. I believe wholeheartedly that Washington in particular has this unique demographic of educated, upper-class, recession-proof government wage-earners that, if this music was marketed to them and they could see that this music is for them, they would be supportive of it."

By targeting this market, he believes he can create an orchestra that will be self-supporting and that can reject the standard nonprofit model. "In this economy, it's unrealistic to try to build an organization with the traditional approach of 30 percent ticket sales, 70 percent grants," says Baltimore, approximating the sources of funding for many large orchestras. "It's not working."

"We're entertainers," he continued, "just like Garth Brooks or Bruce Springsteen. If we can't learn how to effectively market ourselves, and promote and grow and cultivate new audiences to support ourselves, we're doing something radically wrong."

The question is whether he can cultivate that audience fast enough to support his organization's huge ambitions.

The budget for the first concerts, he said, will be about $250,000, though only about $75,000 of that is needed upfront. Baltimore say he raised that money from "family, friends and colleagues" -- in the form of loans that, he says with conviction, will be paid back. His expenses include the marketing firm Maven Strategies, whose fee is about $3,500 monthly.

He envisions his orchestra as a cooperative in which all musicians are stakeholders. For the first concerts, however, a new deal with the union could not be reached, so the April performances will be played by a group of musicians contracted according to the usual union rules. Among those performers are members of the National Symphony Orchestra and Baltimore Symphony.

In June, he hopes to perform a semi-staged concert version of "Porgy and Bess." And by September, he plans to have completed auditions and formed the final ensemble in time for the 2009-10 season. "Ultimately we want to create an ensemble that is as diverse as the area we live in," the conductor said.

Baltimore, who studied at the Peabody Institute and Mannes conservatory, and who was once coached by Leonard Slatkin, didn't come up with the idea for this orchestra until December, when he was approached by two musicians after conducting a single work by Beethoven at a concert at Strathmore.

As for Blackwell, she first met Baltimore when she was preparing to sing "Knoxville" for the first time, about seven years ago, and he helped her prepare it. "I said, 'Hopefully one day I will have the chance to do it with you,' " she said. "And here we are." She added, "To see how he has grown and flourished is wonderful."

Adding another dimension to the concert, Blackwell points out, is that she, Graves, and Baltimore are "Washingtonians, all of us, born and raised in Washington. That's a real plus."

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