The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has experienced its fair share of challenges and internal shifts while enduring the impact of COVID-19. Earlier this year, the symphony continued to scale down live programming in Baltimore, announcing that next season would go from 91 to 81 shows at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, moving more shows to Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore.
But over the summer, the BSO inspired some optimism when they announced conductor Jonathon Heyward as their new music director. The appointment made Heyward the first person of color to hold that title in the orchestra’s 106-year history.
Another turn for the orchestra this year has been the second season of its fusion series, which conductor Steve Hackman brought in 2020 in an effort to diversify the orchestra’s audience by bridging the often insulated world of classical music with fans of contemporary pop. The first of the series’ three shows this season paired Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky with hip-hop artist Drake earlier this month. On New Years Eve, tBeethoven will be paired with Beyoncé, among other team-ups, including Lady Gaga singing with Brahms, Bruno Mars improvising over Bach and Wagner conducting while Adele sings.
None of these actual artists are there, of course, but the idea is to imagine what it might look like if they were.
“It’s been a longstanding effort to try to make sure we have some inclusive programming,” said BSO’s Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications Cyrina Yarbrough.
“Our goal in putting the fusion series together is it’s important for us as a symphony orchestra to make sure we maintain the integrity of classical music, but it’s also really fun to bring new people to this art form.”
Tracey Johnson, a Baltimore-based publicist, found herself at the Drake and Tchaikovsky eventm, motivated by her Drake fandom.
“I’m a huge Drake fan, so I was interested in attending right away. But even still, I was blown away in the most unexpected way the night of the show,” she said. “To experience these Drake songs that I’ve known for years in this brand new way … just wow. The musicians and the vocalists were outstanding. I was moved! The show really heightened my appreciation for music overall because there are so many connections between the classic and the modern and these genres that we really wouldn’t think go together, but they do. They’re all based on emotion and storytelling, and I think that the way that this show was put together just really made that so apparent.”
When asked if the series is resulting in an uptick of ticket sales, Yarbrough said, “Our programs vary. We definitely see a different type of audience. We definitely see an increase in diversity in our audience.”
In past years, the BSO has tried a number of ways to attract new, nontraditional attendees. Before the fusion series was Pulse, an initiative pairing classical and indie performers with Maryland ties, like Dan Deacon, Kelela and Lower Dens. The difference is that, with Pulse, the artists interacting with the orchestra were actually performing. For the fusion series, it’s an idealistic, cross-century dream conceptualized by Steve Hackman, who created the series last season.
“Each pairing was chosen for different reasons,” Hackman said. “For instance, Bartók and Björk are both avant-garde. And sometimes it is based on feeling. Like Tchaikovsky and Drake are both very reminiscent, very emotional composers who wear their hearts on their sleeves. Beethoven and Beyoncé is unique because it has a story. It’s a show within a show. It’s basically the music festival of my dreams, where we’re not limited by time where all these people could be playing the same stage.”
Initiatives to diversify audiences at symphony halls are a nationwide effort. In September, The Lima Symphony Orchestra in Ohio opened its season with a performance that added world-renowned Indian tabla player Sandeep Das. Back in October, the Bismarck-Mandan Symphony Orchestra in North Dakota hosted a fusion performance, “Madame Butterfly,” which was inspired by Asian classical music. The Fort Myers, Florida-based Gulf Coast Symphony will host their first ever fusion show in January when alternative Canadian band Sultans of String will play with their orchestra.
Over the past month, the BSO has been a partnering with Hotel Revival to activate the Meyerhoff’s lobby area to loosen up fusion concertgoers before the events start. The concept for the activation is inspired by an already-existing recurring Friday series at Revival called Lit Lobby, where DJs are booked to welcome guests with energetic tunes.
“I think part of it is making everyone feel welcome and when you show an appreciation for both what has always been done and what is currently being done, it feels more welcoming in a genre that never seemed approachable for people who weren’t white and rich,” said Jason C. Bass, entrepreneur and director of culture and impact at Revival. “So here we are trying to contribute to the next phase of BSO’s programming.”
On New Year’s Eve, after guests enjoy the Beethoven x Beyoncé finale, Bass’s event series The Night Brunch (that he co-founded with DJ Impulse) will take over the Meyerhoff’s lobby with special cocktails, drinks and music.
The idea of having these opposite worlds regularly collide in a celebratory fashion is exciting for many in a musically-inclined city like Baltimore.
“People are attracted to stuff like Beethoven and Beyoncé just to witness it,” said Bass. “It’s a beautiful thing for a space like that to embrace the kind of music like hip-hop that, when I was growing up, wasn’t looked at as musical at all. It was cast out. And now we’re being put in the same space as classical music.”