So when conductor Marin Alsop and the musicians took the stage in this warm and homey auditorium, they were greeted with a long ovation.
“I’m not sure I can talk,” said a visibly moved Alsop, after leading the national anthem that orchestras around the country play at the start of their seasons.
The issue has been whether the orchestra can afford to continue in its current form. The management avers that a 52-week season is no longer viable, and that the orchestra needs to reduce to a 40-week season to survive. Musicians argue that cutting back the season would lower prestige and drive away players. This put management in the odd position of trying to prove to the world just how badly it had managed its money so far, canceling its summer season only weeks after announcing the program, and then locking out its musicians for the 10-week duration.
The new agreement is a one-year contract extension that simply kicks the problems down the road. The contract is for 50 weeks (the lockout accounts for the two missed weeks), but provides pay for a 40-week season; the other 10 weeks are being covered by a $1.6 million donation from “special friends of the BSO.” There is no guarantee that those special friends are going to come forward next year. The contract stipulates that management will hire new musicians to fill existing vacancies; the board will create a Vision Committee with musicians to plan for the orchestra’s future; and there will be no strike and no lockout through next September. Negotiations, one presumes, will continue.
All of this background puts any concert under a kind of existential filter. What is the purpose of the orchestra? How necessary is it to the city? How glad are people that it’s back? The answer to the last seemed to be “very”: The Baltimore audience, which always seems to me more relaxed and familial than the Kennedy Center’s, filled the hall, while members of the players’ committee greeted them in the lobby.
To add another existential touch, fate was the theme of the program, with numbers such as the overture to Verdi’s “Forza del Destino;” Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony (which winds around a “fate” theme from the start); and the Voodoo Violin Concerto written in 2002 by the dynamic Daniel Bernard Roumain, a piece shot through with otherworldly implications, from the spiritlike voices of high flutes to an admixture of vernaculars from other genres, as if the orchestra were speaking in tongues.
After the initial outburst of love, the night started on a sober note with a short piece by Christopher Rouse, the Baltimore-based composer and Pulitzer Prize winner who was BSO composer-in-residence in the 1980s and who died this month at the age of 70. Alsop offered a few reminiscences of him and the time she spent with him in his final days as he was dying of cancer (his only two regrets, she said, were his concern that the BSO might not play opening night, and that he might not see the Baltimore Orioles win). “Processional: Death of Poe” was one of the works the orchestra commissioned for its centenary in 2016, a big dark piece growing to a powerful growl and then dying away — passing, as it were, before our ears and eyes.
The other contemporary composer on the program was bursting with life: Roumain, also known as DBR, was engaging both as composer and performer. His concerto marshals familiar tropes from jazz, blues and folk music in an exuberant synthesis that is neither forced nor hackneyed, as such quotes too often are. Fiddling on his amplified instrument, or taking his bow in his teeth to pluck the strings like a guitar, and even singing into the mic at one point, he drew the orchestra after him in call-and-response episodes, and the audience into enthusiastic applause, a response to this welcome jolt of musical reality in a normally rarefied world.
Alsop’s Verdi was overcharged and not altogether idiomatic, lacking Verdian flow in the interest of trying to land points at big moments. And the evening overall had a slightly raucous quality, the sound of energy funneling itself into a small space. This wasn’t a bad thing, though it gave the Tchaikovsky the sense of a jigsaw puzzle, with the joins apparent between the pieces of the picture. But the piece also crested to a great crashing wave of a finale, and the evening overall gave several perspectives to the issue of why an orchestra is, after all, worth it.