Best Symphony Orchestra

National Symphony Orchestra (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Best: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Second-Best: National Symphony Orchestra

When Beethoven hits the region these days, he commutes.

Like all members of the classical music community, the grand master bounces back and forth between two brand names—the National Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The choice hasn’t always been as operative as it is these days.

Years ago, the BSO stuck to Baltimore and the NSO stuck to D.C. Then, on Feb. 5, 2005, the BSO touched down in North Bethesda. The orchestra played its opening celebration at the Music Center at Strathmore, becoming, by its own claim, the “only major American orchestra to have permanent, year-round homes in two metropolitan areas.”

Now, we can argue whether Baltimore and Washington are really two separate metropolitan areas, but what’s beyond dispute is the strategic genius behind the BSO’s power play. It colonized Montgomery County, one of the NSO’s most fertile audience-recruitment grounds, accounting for 27 percent of its subscriber base. According to BSO spokesperson Eileen Andrews Jackson, 80 percent of the crowd that comes to Strathmore concerts is from the county.

But it’s not just that the BSO is in MoCo; it’s virtually right on top of a Red Line Metro station, making a BSO concert almost more of an urban experience than trekking to the Kennedy Center, the slightly marooned home of the NSO.

All of this maneuvering sets up an absolutely key decision for the regionally cultured: You must choose between the NSO and the BSO. You must decide which hews to your reportorial tastes, which one has the richer strings section, which one plays the less-insufferable avant garde pieces, and which one has a parking plan that suits you.

And what great subjects for a comparison. The BSO has a storied history and a budget of $28 million. The NSO has a storied history and a budget of $30 million. Both are consensus picks for the second tier among major U.S. orchestras, safely behind the vanguard of Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, and perhaps a couple of others.

The best way to choose a winner would be to stage a contest: Cram both orchestras onto a single stage—venue to be determined by coin toss. Assign a disinterested party to choose two classical pieces. Let the public decide who wins.

Such a battle-of-the-bands play-off is a pipe dream, of course. So, as long as both orchestras continue to shun what would be the single most electrifying event in the history of U.S. classical music, we will have to evaluate these entities on their own, separate merits.

Parking

BSO: If you flash your BSO ticket to the Metro parking attendant upon your exit from a Strathmore concert, you don’t pay a cent.

NSO: Motorists wishing to see a concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall face a choice: Try your luck squeezing into a space in what remains of Foggy Bottom’s residential sector or pay $17 for a spot in the KenCen’s parking garage.

Winner: BSO

Explanation: Free always beats fee.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Leadership/Tonal Mastery

An orchestra’s character starts with its music director, who prescribes a vision for the group, hires the musicians, directs the rehearsals, and conducts the concerts. Management agonizes for months—years!—over this pivotal hire, which can mean the difference between a vibrant, growing orchestra and one that plays boring, flat music and plunges the entire operation into the red.

BSO: Charm City is still reaping the PR benefits of hiring the first woman to lead a major U.S. orchestra. Marin Alsop, who took over as music director for the 2007–08 season, is a colorful, expressive conductor with a fondness for talking to her audiences. Under BSO’s new “Off the Cuff” program, Alsop will, in her own words, “talk you through the piece. We’ll dissect the piece. I’ll take it apart, put it back together, give you some insights into the composer’s life.” The orchestra is beta-testing “Off the Cuff” this year at its Baltimore venue—to rave reviews—and may export it to Strathmore at some point.

In what has become a de rigueur element of a music director’s mission statement, Alsop is championing works from modern composers, especially American ones. In the coming weeks, for instance, the BSO will play pieces by Bernstein and Copland, though it’ll never veer too far off the Beethoven-Mozart cow path.

NSO: D.C.’s grand orchestra is undergoing a directorial transition. Last fall, it announced the hiring of Christoph Eschenbach as its music director starting with the 2010–11 season, though he has already begun tinkering with the product. The knock on Eschenbach, who ended his former gig as head of the Philadelphia Orchestra amid a ton of recriminations, is that he can be too whimsical and scatterbrained in laying down a vision and sticking to it. Whatever: The guy’s an artist, right? And he’s an artist in charge of a strong group of musicians. If there’s one thing that previous NSO music director Leonard Slatkin accomplished, it’s upgrading the ranks.

Winner: NSO

Explanation: These are both strong groups—strong enough that the average concertgoer (that’s me) lacks the sophistication to differentiate between them on the finer points of orchestral performance. NSO gets the nod here primarily because of Alsop’s commitment to lecturing her audience. “Off the Cuff” must go. If I wanted an artist to talk to me all night, I’d go to a Billy Bragg show.

Concertmaster

BSO: Poor Alsop. When she’s on the podium doing her thing, she tends to get a bit overshadowed. That’s because the BSO’s concertmaster, Jonathan Carney, is something of a showman. Carney’s big on all of the violinist’s passion moves—the swaying of the torso, the jerking of the head, the pumping of the elbow. Even if you don’t like classical music, it’s hard not to get excited about it when you’re watching Carney.

NSO: The NSO has a concertmaster, too. Her name is Nurit Bar-Josef, and she’s an acclaimed musician in her own right. She’s no Carney up there; she just plays her violin and lets the music carry you away.

Winner: BSO

Explanation: As an average listener, it’s impossible to discern which concertmaster better nails the technical aspects of the violin. That leaves visuals, an area in which Carney is clearly superior.

Ticket Prices

Talk about tonal mastery and repertoire all you want, but nothing matters to concertgoers as much as price.

BSO: Prices range from $25 to $68, with discounts for students plus “group opportunities”—special prices for parties of 15 or more. The only quirk in the pricing structure is its lowest rung—$20 bargains known as “unreserved seats.” The purchase and pick-up of these discounted tickets are governed by a set of regulations more suited to Baltimore’s Board of Municipal & Zoning Appeals than to its orchestra. Of course, that presumes they can be picked up at all. When I checked the BSO Web site, the $20 seats weren’t available for any upcoming concerts.

NSO: Prices range from $20 to $80. Students can get in for $10 under a special NSO program. The NSO, too, occasionally allows heavy price discounts for programs that it’s having particular trouble filling. For a recent concert featuring works by Stravinsky, for example, I approached the ticket window and walked away with a half-price ticket for an excellent seat on the third level. David Kitto, the NSO’s vice president of marketing and sales, says such steep discounts are offered occasionally, “based on availability.”

Winner: NSO

Explanation: The BSO’s “unreserved” debacle verily expresses contempt for the concertgoer—a sentiment truly at odds with the real character and intent of this organization. Until it abolishes this program in favor of something more digestible, NSO gets the ticket nod.

Hipness

The classical crowd skews old—as in mid-50s old. Though orchestras appease the base by playing the warhorses of the classical repertoire, they’re desperate for younger subscribers who’ll ensure their future.

BSO: Facebook? Check. MySpace? Check. Twitter? Check. Bloggers? You bet.

This is one tech-happy organization, and it pursues a Web strategy that a newspaper publisher or two could perhaps borrow from.

Elizabeth Yackley, a 25-year-old resident of Frederick who’s been a fan of the BSO since she was 12, blogs about its shows in exchange for concert tickets. That somewhat corrupting exchange results in fawning posts about the orchestra, like a recent entry from Yackley titled “Marin and Johannes: A Match Made in Heaven, or at least in Baltimore, anyway.” Now that’s good PR.

The BSO’s MySpace page is loaded with all kinds of tunes and links to videos of Alsop, who is a driving force behind the BSO’s tech offensive. “She’s very engaged, very involved with everything, very into technology,” says Jackson.

The orchestra’s online push seems to have paid off: According to Jackson, the orchestra has boosted its subscribership by 27 percent since September 2007 and has managed to balance the budget for two straight years—a big improvement over previous, red-ink-stained campaigns.

NSO: The orchestra has a fine Facebook presence but no MySpace page. And bad things happen when you enter “National Symphony Orchestra” on YouTube. First result is a shaky amateur video shot by some person who got nosebleed seats for an NSO performance on Labor Day last year. And the second result features the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine.

Rita Shapiro, the NSO’s executive director, says the orchestra is talking about launching on Twitter and doing some blogging. Perhaps the NSO would be a bit quicker to innovate on the Web if it weren’t part of the Kennedy Center, a big bureaucracy that could slow down technology initiatives. Shapiro says that’s not the case: “Sure, this is a very big place,” she says. “But the NSO gets all the attention that we want and need.”

Still, the NSO is aggressive in hitting youth elsewhere, via college campuses and the Washington Post Co.’s Expressng youth elsewhere, via college campuses and the Washington Post Co.’s Express newspaper, for example. A recent concert reflected the success of its outreach, as the cheap seats were crowded with the coveted 18-35 demographic.

Susan Connolly, an NSO subscriber for well over a decade, says she has noted a change among her fellow concertgoers. “I think the crowd is getting younger,” she says. “When we first started, we saw lots of gray hair and lots of people falling asleep.”

Winner: BSO

Explanation: Here’s an orchestra that behaves more like a start-up company than a staid arts institution, at least with respect to getting its wares on the Internet.

Venue

BSO: Strathmore is a grand hall with sensitive acoustics.

NSO: The Kennedy Center Concert Hall is a grand hall with sensitive acoustics.

Winner: None

Explanation: These are both grand halls with sensitive acoustics.

Intangibles

A pair of anecdotes from recent outings

BSO: If you’re coming to Strathmore via Metro and walk through the parking garage to the Strathmore entrance, prepare for a treat. One of those oversize golf carts common to airport terminals waits to ferry ticketholders closer to the venue doors. I hopped right on and accepted the short, free ride.

NSO: The ushers at NSO events are priceless. Clad in cute red blazers, they have the concert hall seating scheme mastered. They also work well as a team. At a recent concert, a woman collapsed on her way out of the hall, right in the middle of a piece. The ushers attended to her immediately, called for help, and summoned her companion—all without disrupting the concert.

Winner: None

Explanation: Going to hear either of these orchestras is a pleasant experience. You get the sense that you’re wanted.

Overall Winner: BSO

Explanation: In the end, it always comes down to parking.

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