Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Symphony Orchestra

• Founded 1916

Editor's Choice

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was the first American orchestra to tour the Soviet Union following a thaw in diplomatic relations in 1987, and conductor Marin Alsop's interpretation of Prokofiev's dramatic and touching music has drawn comparisons with that of her mentor, Leonard Bernstein. Having spent many years abroad in France, Germany and the USA, Prokofiev's 1935 ballet was the product of something of a Faustian pact with Soviet authorities. He was lured back to his homeland by the promise of the freedom to write the ballet or opera of his choice, and his ambitions included capitalising on Shostakovich's post-Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk fall from grace. However, problems came thick and fast when the Bolshoi was brought under the control of the Committee on Arts Affairs, who postponed the ballet amid Stalin's Great Purge. The former Bolshoi director was arrested, and a scholar of Shakespeare who had voiced support for Prokofiev's proposed amendment to the polt - a happy ending for the star-crossed lovers - was among 600,000 people executed. A heavily modified version of the ballet, complete with the usual tragic ending, was finally performed by the Mariinsky Ballet in 1940. Despite all these setbacks and the near-boycott of the Mariinsky production by its dancers due to the complicated rhythms, the ballet was a runaway success and remains one of the most significant Soviet ballets.


The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was established as a municipal ensemble with funding from local government agencies. The orchestra's first concert took place at the Lyric Theatre on February 11, 1916; its players were mostly local musicians joined by a few members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Gustav Strube was appointed the group's first musical director in 1917. During his 13-year tenure, the number of concerts gradually increased, children's concerts were established in 1924, and several famous artists and guest conductors were attracted, including Siegfried Wagner, son of the composer. Strube's departure in 1930 resulted in a period of uncertainty for the orchestra, worsened by the national depression. His successor was George Siemonn, who worked vigorously for increased municipal funding and for the introduction of new compositions at concerts. He also conducted the orchestra's historic first radio broadcast concerts. Ernest Schelling was appointed music director in 1935 and became the first BSO conductor to lead a performance of Handel's Messiah during Christmas week. Werner Janssen was appointed music director in 1937 and was succeeded by Harold Barlow in 1939, but neither of these two conductors could overcome the financial and morale problems plaguing the orchestra. In 1942, the director of Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory, Reginald Stewart, was appointed music director. By 1945, with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt and Met star Rosa Ponselle, the orchestra's size was increased to 90 members, its schedule of concerts expanded, and its repertory broadened. By the early 1950s, however, deficits and other problems precipitated Stewart's resignation and the departure of several orchestra members. Italian conductor Massimo Freccia took the reins in 1952 and immediately set diligently to work for solutions to the many difficulties facing the orchestra. He often presented concert versions of operas and conducted other large-scale works, drawing in sizable audiences. Peter Herman Adler succeeded Freccia in 1959. Under his directorship, regular subscription concerts and youth and children's concerts substantially increased and numerous new compositions were presented or premiered. In 1964, the orchestra began performing with the Baltimore Civic Opera Company. Romanian-born Sergiu Comissiona was appointed music director in 1968 by philanthropist Joseph Meyerhoff, president of the symphony orchestra organization. These two figures guided the orchestra to some of its greatest artistic triumphs, as well as to financial stability over the next decade and a half. Comissiona made numerous recordings with the orchestra and led many successful tours abroad. Meyerhoff donated $10.5 million toward the construction of a new hall, and the orchestra gave its first concert in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on September 16, 1982. American David Zinman was appointed music director in 1985 and maintained the high standards set during the Comissiona era. He also made numerous recordings, and the orchestra began regular radio broadcasts in 1986. Zinman and the BSO won several Grammy awards, the first in 1987 in a collaborative effort with Yo-Yo Ma featuring cello concertos by Britten and Barber. Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov succeeded Zinman in 1999. Temirkanov and the orchestra were frequently heard on NPR's Performance Today and regularly made recordings. When Marin Alsop took over leadership in 2007, she became the first woman to serve as music director of a major American orchestra.