Long regarded by many as a working-class city known mainly for its steamed crabs and beer, my hometown of Baltimore also claims a rich cultural dimension that has profoundly affected the lives of many, including mine. As the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra marks its 100th year, I join the celebration with lots of personal gratitude and a bit of civic pride. Marin Alsop conducts the orchestra now. She’s the first female conductor of a major U.S. orchestra.
In 1914, Frederick Huber, manager of the summer program at Peabody Conservatory of Music, approached Mayor James Preston to suggest that the city add singalongs to its popular summer band concerts in front of the Washington Monument. Audiences flocked to them, prompting Huber to suggest creation of a municipal symphony orchestra. So it was that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the nation’s first orchestra funded entirely by taxpayers, played its first concert on February 11, 1916, in the Lyric Opera House.
The Lyric, modeled after the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, served as Baltimore’s dignified venue for classical music since it was built in 1894 and was mostly considered a home for opera. The Met brought its tours there, and the Lyric served for most of its life as home of Baltimore’s own opera companies. But the new symphony moved in and made itself at home for the next 66 years. The orchestra now performs in the The Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, its home since the hall opened in 1982.
As a child of 10, I sat in the Lyric’s velvet seats at Saturday matinee concerts by that big orchestra conducted by Reginald Stewart. Armed with streetcar fare and 25 cents for admission, I traveled to the Lyric with my fifth-grade classmates and our teacher, Miss Haugh. I loved the music. Great classical music has enriched my life ever since, and I credit those matinee concerts for kids for planting the seed.
Great classical music endures for centuries, while so many other music styles and trends rise in popularity then fade. Do you wonder, as I do, why we don’t hear classical music in more places? Grammy awards are dominated by other forms as if classical music doesn’t exist. The lucrative music CD market is dominated by rock and country. We don’t expect Super Bowl halftime shows, Independence Day celebrations and the like to feature great violinists, pianists or symphony orchestras. Why not?
I do enjoy other forms, a wide range of music, really, old and new, and I certainly respect the musical preferences of others. I just yearn for a little sharing of the wealth now and then. When shopping in a store, wouldn’t it be pleasant to hear a little Mozart or Brahms being piped in?