Humiliation for Baltimore’s Jews at the Symphony

Sixty years ago, classical music was the most Jewish thing in America. 80% of the conductors seemed to be some temperamental Jewish guy from Europe (unless he converted), and half the musicians he made miserable were Jewish too – 25% of every American orchestra were Jews from Europe, 25% were Jews born here. Oh, and 50% of the audience was Jewish too…

If you explained to anybody under the age of 70 that classical music was literally the soundtrack of daily life for everybody who is now over seventy, hardly anyone would believe you. It seems so completely distant from today’s life that it must have disappeared overnight.

In every concert hall, there’s always one eccentric who sits near the front at every show and gets way too involved in the music. In the Baltimore halls, it’s probably me. In DC, there’s an obese man with a great big bushy beard who wears suspenders on top of a dirty flannel shirt; he beats time to the music with his knees. In London, there’s a guy with long, curly, greying hair and a beard practically down to his ankles; he always wears tight fluorescent cycling jerseys and shorts to concerts and you can see all sorts of details about him you don’t want to see. In New York, there’s an old Jewish bald guy with a mustache and a giant wart on his forehead. He’s always outside begging for tickets and distracts the people near him inside by air-conducting.

My familiarity with the concert halls of the English-speaking world is as venerable as the dwindling numbers of people who sit next to me. I’m often the youngest person in the auditorium who didn’t get comped tickets from the law firm at which he clerks, but I feel like a ghost who goes once a week to observe the other ghosts, the final tenants of a world clearly dying, themselves paying homage to the music of a world long dead.
It is especially sad to go to Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where the Baltimore Symphony plays, because every week, you get a particularly poignant reminder of a Jew who is dying off very quickly. Jackie Mason made a whole career from them: the overweight accountant who loves prune Danishes and devotes his entire life to making partner; who knows a ritzy building he could have bought 60 years ago for nine dollars and can’t laugh without his wife’s permission; who owes his wife money even though he’s the one who works; who views a restaurant as his natural habitat and prefers cake to sex.
For nearly a century, Carnegie Hall’s audience was as Jewish as the Metropolitan Opera’s was Italian. There was overlap between them of course, but just as Italian-Americans once had a proprietary view of Verdi and Caruso and Pavarotti as ‘theirs’, we viewed Mahler and Copland and Bernstein and Heifetz and Horowitz and Rubinstein as ‘ours.’ Jewish classical performers didn’t just provide great music, they were evidence that Jews were taken seriously by the world. Every concert played by a famous Jew wasn’t just about hearing the music, it was a validation that opportunities for us were possible.
These Jews, at least the ones who are still around, are now in their eighties and nineties, and they’re practically the only people left in the concert halls of America’s second-tier cities; and a good half of them seem barely able to walk. Twenty years before I was born, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra would come to Baltimore and do an entire mini-season of concerts at the Lyric Opera House. When I was a kid, the Baltimore Symphony would have three performances every week in the Meyerhoff, all of which nearly sold out. And inevitably, it was an incredibly Jewish experience. David Zinman, the music director, was Jewish, the music director before him, Sergiu Comissiona, was Jewish too, the concertmaster, Herbert Greenberg… well come on, and before Greenberg, the concertmaster was Isidore Saslav…  And except for Yo-Yo Ma, week-in, week out, the soloists all seemed to be Jews too: Perlman, Stern, Zukerman, Milstein, Menuhin, Haendel, Bell, Mintz, Vengerov, Kremer, Szeryng, Shumsky, Silverstein, Sitkovetsky, Gitlis, Shaham, Znaider, Josefowicz, Rosand, Peskanov, Marcovici, Fried, Franck, Fleisher, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Kissin, Serkin, Perahia, Lupu, Ax, Bronfman, Dichter, Davidovich, Feltsman, Goode, Starker, Maisky, Gutmann, Haimovitz, Harnoy, Nelsova, Shafran, Stoltzman, Feidman, Kam, … The last generation of those Jewish stars is still active, but the days when the concert circuit seems populated almost completely by Jews is truly over.
Today, the BSO does two performances a week in Baltimore, where it’s barely half-full, and one in Bethesda, near Washington DC, where attendance is apparently even worse. One by one for forty years, the pre-Baby Boomer Jews who kept symphony orchestras financially solvent have died off, and nobody’s taken their place. Soon it won’t just be cities like Baltimore and Detroit with this problem, it will be the audiences at Carnegie Hall too. Even the Metropolitan Opera House can barely fill half their 3800 seat house on bad nights.
And here in Baltimore, we just got a piece of the most tragic cultural news yet. Until now, year after year, the BSO musicians agreed to waive their contractual right to a salary increase so that the orchestra could remain financially solvent. For this generosity, they received their reward two weeks ago. The BSO management offered their musicians a proposal for a 23% reduction in work weeks and a 17% cut in salary. The Baltimore Symphony would cease to be a major, full-time, symphony orchestra. The best musicians will leave the orchestra so they can make more money and work more, the best young musicians will apply elsewhere, and the reduction in quality will push off more potential donors.
It’s an incredibly sordid time for this orchestra, perhaps the most disgraceful chapter in its 102-year history. The new executive director, Peter T. Kjome, is clearly a carpetbagger. He pulled a stunt exactly like this at the Grand Rapids Symphony before Baltimore hired him. And just in case his character was in doubt, at the exact same time that he made this offer, the principal oboist made a public sexual harassment claim against the concertmaster. However one judges the veracity of that claim, the fact remains that Mr. Kjome waited until the the musicians’ weakest public relations moment in their history to tell them that he was gutting their jobs. It is a double belittlement for the musicians. Their bosses deliberately waited for the people who work for them to be at their most humiliated so that they can bleed the futures of their employees, who have to negotiate from their weakest possible position.
Leeches like this are not promoted in the orchestral world unless the board of directors wants to hire a leech. Moreso even than Kjome, the fault lies with the board of directors, who clearly does not want to foot the BSO’s bill. Thirty-five years ago, Joseph Meyerhoff would simply have written out a check and all this would blow over. But there is no member of the board willing to step up. And when you look at the last names of the Board of Directors, you realize that this is not just a scandal for Baltimore, but a scandal for Baltimore’s Jews. What abdication of responsibility happened to our community that we went from the city’s most crucial benefactors of culture to the city’s most ignominious destroyers? Those few whom Baltimore has made rich have a responsibility to the hundreds of thousands upon whose labor they made their money. You would think that their legacy would be sufficiently important that, as Joseph Meyerhoff did and a hundred other Jewish-American Medicis, they’d want to leave behind a legacy of culture and education for the betterment of the city that gave them everything.
If the musicmaking weren’t so great, the BSO would be the most depressing place in Baltimore. But the BSO is not the most depressing place in Baltimore, it is the best thing about living in Baltimore. I would rather wait a while to tell you all how far out of my way I go to get to a decent orchestral concert, but I often wonder why I do, because on any given week, the BSO may outplay every orchestra until you get as far afield as Pittsburgh. Perhaps its a paradox, but the very precariousness of the arts in second-tier cities like Baltimore and Pittsburgh and Cleveland means that the practitioners have to bring their A-game every week or else there will be no audience at all. And, of course, there may be no audience even so.

The Baltimore Symphony is one of the greatest orchestras in America. It is an oasis in a tragic city where there is no respite from bad news. The City of Baltimore has only a very few civic institutions that can serve as ambassadors. It has two major league teams: the Ravens and the Orioles, and in the next 10-20 years, the Orioles may decide they can’t afford to stay in such a small market like ours. Baltimore has a number of fantastic small art museums and theaters and restaurants, but by far, the cultural crown jewel is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which in the days of Zinman and Comissiona was as crucial to Baltimore’s identity and pride as the orchestras of Philadelphia and Boston and Cleveland and Minneapolis and Pittsburgh and St. Louis are still to their cities – and as great an orchestra as any of them.

Classical music is an unbroken tradition which has existed for the better part of a millennium, and yet in so many parts of the world, it is dying out; just like Yiddish, just like conservative and reformed Judaism, just like unreconstructed American liberalism. Dying is the most inevitable part of nature, and eventually it comes for everybody and everything; but the high arts is the only proof we have that anything at all defies the cycle of nature. It takes you to places and eras and worlds of which your mind could never conceive without them. The loss of a full-time Baltimore Symphony is like a fire at the Baltimore Museum of Art or the Walters Art Gallery – hundreds of paintings and sculptures and artifacts that are completely unique, that reach out to us across centuries, that let us commune with the ambitions and yearnings of people and places long dead, and are so fragile that it only takes an instant to destroy all that uniqueness which has lived on for centuries. Once erased, you can never get it back.

All artists have ever wanted to do is make your lives more joyful, more meaningful, more beautiful. It’s almost a cliche that Americans don’t like the high arts, which we perceive as something elitist, and that Americans don’t like history, the lessons of which we perceive as not applying to us. But it would seem of late that we’re drawing closer and closer to learning that the lessons of history still very much applying here. If America, if American Jews, let things this beautiful die, how much else can we allow to die?

About the Author
Evan Tucker, alias A C Charlap, is a writer and musician residing in Baltimore. He is currently composing music for all 150 Biblical Tehillim. A Jewish Music Apollo Project - because "They have Messiah, we have I Have a Little Dreidel." He is currently on #11. Eight of the first ten are pretty avant garde, but they're going to get more traditional as he gets further in. Evan also has a podcast called 'It's Not Even Past - A History of the Distant Present' which is a way of relating current events to history and history to current events. Most importantly, he is also currently working on a podcast called Tales from the Old New Land, fictional stories from the whole of Jewish History. The podcast is currently being retooled, the link to the new version will be up in the next month or so.
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