Update: On May 30, the Baltimore Symphony management called an emergency meeting and announced the cancellation of the BSO summer season. This sudden action, despite a recently approved $3.2 million grant from the State of Maryland, also suspends the tenth BSO Academy, the subject of this article.
In spite of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s current tenuous contract state, the BSO Academy will celebrate its 10th season in July 2019. The annual week-long tuition-based program gives attendees the opportunity to work side-by-side with Symphony musicians. Additionally, there are master classes, sectionals, and enrichment workshops, along with optional chamber music opportunities and private lessons.
The first BSO Academy was announced in January 2010 with initial financial support from the Mellon Foundation, and targeted amateur and adult vocational musicians. Over the past ten years, Academy participants have come from almost all 50 states, as well as foreign countries, including Switzerland, France, Russia, and Austria. BSO English horn player and Academy consultant Jane Marvine says that the program is geared toward adult musicians who are “consumed with a passion for playing and are often frustrated by limitations they face due to lack of instruction, time to devote to it, and the lack of opportunities.” Marvine also states that past attendees frequently cite the “kind nurturing expert mentoring” they receive from the BSO musicians.
In 2012, the BSO Academy caught the attention of amateur clarinetist and New York Times editor Daniel J. Wakin. In a July 15, 2012, Times cover story, Wakin gave the Academy national exposure when he wrote about his own personal experience. “We sat next to the Baltimore players, drank beer with them and sipped from their decades of personal wisdom. We experienced the obsessive nature of orchestra musicians and felt their physical pain, self-doubt and, once-in-a-while, supreme confidence.”
Over the past decade, the BSO Academy has enjoyed an approximate seventy percent return rate from year to year. Horn player Lyn Banghart is an eight-year veteran of the Academy. Banghart says, “Attendees come together at a place where we all have so much in common; the love of music and the love of playing and performing.” She cherishes her new musical friends from across the country and throughout the world. Banghart also cites her relationship with the symphony musicians as highly rewarding. “The BSO musicians are so friendly, supportive, caring, happy to have us there, and so very helpful. [Over the years] we became friends and to sit next to them is just wondrous!” She recalls one performance of “Nimrod” from Enigma Variations. “When the violins started so softly and beautifully, I was overcome by emotion and the tears flowed so that for several minutes I couldn’t see my music.”
In 2015, several friends encouraged violist John Warshawsky to give the BSO Academy a try. During his first year, Warshawsky recalls, “The musicians wanted us to be challenged, and to be at ease getting out of our ‘comfort zones’, knowing that it was okay to fall short musically. It was more important to the musicians that we pushed boundaries, knowing that we would still be accepted and supported by the pros.” He states that the Academy has been “the single most important factor in pushing me to improve” as a musician. Specifically, Warshawsky values the Baltimore Symphony musicians “as truly good and special people who have lifted my spirits when I needed it and whose well-being and friendship means so much to me.”
After the BSO musicians were presented with a contract proposal in October 2018 that featured drastic cuts to their 52-week season along with numerous changes to benefits and working conditions, many BSO Academy alumni organized and became vocal supporters of the musicians’ cause. A ‘Save Our BSO’ committee quickly formed and became an invaluable driving force by leafleting and assisting with political action needs. Warshawsky has been one of the most visible and vocal alumni advocates. “We locked arms with the musicians and spoke out to management and friends and, where possible, to the public. We did so because, through the Academy, we had come to believe that it was important the BSO musicians knew they had our backing and that they understood that what happens to them affects us, as well.” Jane Marvine finds it ironic that BSO musicians have often told Academy attendees not to worry during rehearsals and concerts. “We would tell them that ‘we are your safety net, we have your backs.’ But it turns out that Academy participants have OUR backs now.”
As the orchestra continues to work without a labor agreement, the BSO Academy’s tenth year, as well as the orchestra’s entire summer season, was threatened. Planning was delayed due to the contract status and the program did not receive an official confirmation until mid March. Happily, it was announced that the 2019 BSO Academy (though traditionally held in June) will occur in July. It will also coincide with Baltimore’s Artscape festival, billed as the country’s largest free arts celebration. This year’s program will include symphonic music by Berlioz, Strauss, Shostakovich, and more.
Marvine, along with other musician and staff organizers, has worked overtime trying to overcome the truncated preparation time. It has proven “challenging, frustrating, and rewarding” for Marvine to see this year’s Academy come into fruition. After ten years of intense organizational involvement, she says it has “created a new dimension to my life and to those of my colleagues. It has been uplifting and has created a new perspective on what the Baltimore Symphony does and how we can share that with others.” As the uncertainty of the labor situation continues to be a matter of interest for Warshawsky, he looks forward to being on the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall stage this July. “The world is a very different place for us, thanks to the past decade with the Academy.” And Lyn Banghart can’t wait to play her horn this July. She is very grateful that the Academy will take place. “I love the BSO. And when I say that, I mean the Symphony’s musicians who sit next to me, help me become a better player, and are now my friends. How could you not love and be grateful to this world class orchestra?”
Note: The author is an oboist with the Baltimore Symphony and the author of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: A Century of Sound.