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(Re)Making The Band

Marin Alsop Conducts The BSO Into The 21st Century

Photos by Sam Holden
BSO Music Director Marin Alsop
BSO Violinist And Concertmaster Jonathan Carney
BSO English Horn Player Jane Marvine
BSO CEO Paul Meecham.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/21/2007

It would be difficult to imagine two conductors more different than Yuri Temirkanov and Marin Alsop. Yet the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have had to make the wrenching adjustment from playing for Temirkanov, the Old World Russian who was the BSO's music director from 2000 to 2006, to playing for Alsop, the American modernist who officially took over that position with a preview concert, on Sept. 14, at North Bethesda's Music Center at Strathmore.

As Alsop rehearsed for that preview concert earlier that day, the differences were immediately obvious. As the first woman to lead a major American orchestra, Alsop was, of course, shorter than her predecessor, but her stocky frame and brusque energy, bundled up in a simple white blouse and black slacks, suggested an athleticism in contrast to the ailing, elegant Russian who is 18 years older. Unlike Temirkanov, she used the traditional baton, holding it out at the end of her bending right arm with her outer fingers spread and her left arm bent as if an opening parenthesis. As she conducted she rocked back and forth between her right and left legs; she leaned forward toward each section, as if daring them to come in.

The baton, gender, age, and body language may be trivial differences, but behind them lie more important distinctions. The preview concert is a sampler of music from the coming season and this year amid the expected Beethovens, Schumanns, and Shostakoviches were the kind of contemporary and American pieces that Temirkanov rarely programmed. As Alsop pushed the orchestra through Fearful Symmetries by her American contemporary John Adams, her familiarity and passion for the piece were obvious. It's no surprise, then, that the highlight of her first season is a series of large works by living composers.

When Temirkanov rehearsed the BSO, he said very little, and when he conducted before audiences, he said even less. Part of that was his shaky command of English, but part of it was also his emphasis on the nonverbal aspects of music and its larger emotional impact. If he were dissatisfied with something at rehearsal, he would make a cryptic comment and indicate with his body language and facial expression what he wanted, breaking into a warm grin when he got it.

Alsop, on the other hand, is a talker. She loves to talk to audiences. She loves to talk to the media. She loves to talk to musicians. And what she likes to talk about at rehearsal are the technical details that Temirkanov often left to the players. Measure "63 was slightly quick," she told the string section in September. "The quarter notes should be shorter, just `bop, bop, bop.'" Later she told the brass, "You should be more together at 172--try it again." Still dissatisfied, she told them sternly, "I'm showing you how--all you have to do is look up."

Temirkanov had an old-school suspicion of electronic media. He believed that the live concert-hall experience was central to classical music and regarded everything else as a possible distraction. By contrast, Alsop, who turned 51 last month, has a baby boomer's enthusiasm for the media. She has already released a landmark recording of John Corigliano's The Red Violin concerto, conducting Joshua Bell and the BSO last year as music director designate. This fall she has managed to get tapes of the BSO's performances on both iTunes and XM Satellite Radio on a regular basis.

So it's been quite an adjustment for the musicians, but BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney thinks that's a good thing. "You need to have different kinds of conductors to revitalize an orchestra," he argues. "Some people who prefer the old-fashioned, romantic, European style might have been upset to have Yuri replaced by Marin, just as some were probably upset to have David Zinman replaced by Yuri. But that's shortsighted. The last thing you want is an orchestra that's on autopilot, repeating the same habits they acquired from the last music director. An orchestra needs to be shaken up periodically."

"The BSO probably reflects every past music director to some degree," Alsop agrees. "When I hear the orchestra, I don't hear Zinman, Temirkanov, or myself--I hear a mixture of us, all the guest conductors, and the musicians' own personalities. Music directors come and go, but the musicians remain and they have their own influence as well. Musicians can't play a phrase that's devoid of their personality, so the essence of who they are comes through. An orchestra feels these influences, but it also retains its own style."

It's an odd phenomenon that an ensemble of 92 individuals, the current size of the BSO, can have a unified, discernible personality, but each orchestra does. It's even odder how that personality changes as each new music director imposes his or her character on the musicians. It's always a negotiation between the band and the conductor--and that give-and-take is now happening between Alsop and the BSO.

"Some will argue that globalization has diluted the personalities of different orchestras," Alsop acknowledges. "Orchestras hire musicians from all over the world because the technical level of music education everywhere is very high right now. Conductors travel a lot more. It used to be that a music director would conduct a majority of an orchestra's concerts--[George] Szell was in Cleveland 30 weeks a year--but now the expectation is 13 weeks. It may not be as monochromatically defined as in the old days, but I believe orchestras still have personalities."

By way of examples, she describes the New York Philharmonic as "an orchestra of stars, real stars" and the St. Louis Symphony as one "with a good sense of humor." When she conducts the Orchestre de Paris, she finds it an ensemble "of proud individuals," while the London Symphony boasts a rare camaraderie--"they're happy to play with each other."

What about the BSO? What's its personality?

"This orchestra has been shaped and stretched by every music director it has had," Carney says. "And because those conductors have been so different, this orchestra has a versatility that few can match. Maybe we can't play Bruckner as well as the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, but we have a very informed approach to Bruckner. Maybe we can't do Mozart as well as the English Chamber Orchestra, but we do a fine Mozart--and we can do a very good Adams and Shostakovich as well. This orchestra can shift from one style to another with lots of confidence because it has played so much music with such different conductors."

"The quality of this orchestra is very high, both technically and musically," Alsop says. "It's probably best known for the richness of its timbre and its devotion to sound. They have a wide palette--they just need to be challenged to use it. But what drew me here was the orchestra's spirit of wanting to be engaged. Some orchestras don't have that. This one is looking for a good stimulant--they're up for what the conversation's going to be about. But like anyone, they need someone to be in the moment and be the initiator. That's my role."

In rehearsal, Alsop examines each composition in clinical detail. She wants each element in the music--the balance, the intonation, the rhythm, the ensemble--to be clean and precise. If each puzzle piece if perfectly shaped, she implies, the big picture will appear seamless. In this, Alsop is very much in the tradition of such American conductors as Zinman and Leonard Bernstein.

Temirkanov, on the other hand, was an archetypal European conductor, more interested in romanticism than in precision. The danger, of course, is that romanticism can stray into bombast or sentimentality while precision can become mechanical. Neither Temirkanov nor Alsop commits those sins, but they are starting from very different places.

"Yuri was more interested in broad strokes," Carney says. "If there was an imperfection in that broad stroke, he could live with it if the feeling was there. He was all about shaping the emotional content of the piece, and he did that by getting the musicians on his wavelength. That happens not in a week, but over the course of months and months, but when it happens, everything is easier. Marin focuses more on each little brick and builds it up from there. She assumes that if each brick is right, the whole building will be right. But that's also a time-consuming process, because there are a lot of bricks."

In a sense, the BSO has been swinging like a pendulum between two kinds of music directors. Sergiu Comissiona, who transformed the BSO from an obscure provincial ensemble to a major U.S. orchestra during his 1969-'84 tenure, was a Bucharest native and a romantic conductor in the European tradition. It was a sea change, therefore, when Comissiona was succeeded by Zinman, a New Yorker with an enthusiasm for new music, American music, and clean, brisk performances. After his 1985-'98 term, he was replaced by Temirkanov, another Old World romantic, who was replaced in turn by Alsop, another modernist New Yorker.

A large majority of the musicians in the BSO were hired by Comissiona or Zinman, but Temirkanov brought in several new section leaders--violinist Carney, cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn, oboist Katherine Needleman, and trumpeter Andrew Balio--and promoted several others--second violinist Qing Li, horn player Phil Munds, and trombonist Chris Dudley. So as Alsop takes over the orchestra and tries to infuse it with her own vision, she is dealing with musicians whose musical assumptions have already been shaped by her predecessors.

"Orchestras do have an ingrained personality," Carney agrees. "When we fall short, it's usually on discipline issues, and Marin was quick to pick up on that and work on it. She has taken some of the pieces we've done with Yuri and de-Yuri-fied them. She doesn't take them back to the beginning but maybe to the middle and then rebuilds them without the Temirkanovisms. She'll address balance issues with her hands--she'll be strict with the baton so we pay attention to her rhythmic wishes."

Just as Alsop tries to talk the musicians around to her way of thinking, she does the same with audiences, whether it's helping older listeners get a grasp of John Adams or helping younger audiences get a handle on Beethoven. Unlike Temirkanov, who never spoke to audiences and would only do interviews through an interpreter, Alsop often turns around on the podium to face the audience and offer some hints about what we're about to hear. And she's glad to talk to any journalist or radio host who's interested.

"I often encounter this prejudice," she laments, "that if you speak to the audience and tell a few jokes, you can't be deep, you can't be serious. That's not true. In fact, the opposite is true. If you're so unapproachable and serious that people can't relate to you, you've defeated the main purpose of art, which is to have an emotional impact on people. I don't feel a compulsion to speak at every performance, but if you can break down the barriers between the audience and the experience and you're not sacrificing the quality of the music itself, why not?"

Her role model for communicating with audiences was Leonard Bernstein, the composer and longtime music director of the New York Philharmonic, who was articulate and accessible whether on the podium or the TV screen. Alsop, the daughter of two professional musicians in Manhattan, first encountered Bernstein at a concert when she was 9 and decided then and there to become an orchestral conductor. She entered Yale University at age 16 and had a master's degree in violin performance from Juilliard by age 21. At that point the fast track stalled a bit, for it was difficult for a woman, especially such a young woman, to get conductor jobs in the late '70s.

She freelanced as a violinist in everything from the Sweeney Todd pit orchestra to the New York Philharmonic as a sub. She indulged her interest in classical crossover connections by co-founding String Fever, a 10-piece hornless band that played trad-jazz with a chamber-music feel. But what she really wanted to do was conduct, and when she couldn't get the opportunities she wanted, she formed her own ensemble, the Concordia Orchestra, in 1984, just so she would have some musicians to wave her baton at. The group, still in existence, emphasizes crossover and contemporary art music.

Alsop's persistence finally paid off when she won two important awards in 1988: the American Symphony Orchestra's Stokowski Conducting Competition and the Tanglewood Music Center's Leonard Bernstein Conducting Fellowship. The latter was especially crucial because it allowed Alsop to travel to the Berkshires and work directly with her childhood hero.

"Bernstein told us that every piece of music has a story behind it," Alsop recalls, "and it's the responsibility of the conductor to bring that story to life. Ultimately, the story has to be told by the music, but if you can help the story along by talking to the audience, the musicians, or the press, that's all to the good. He was a master at that. He'd tell stories at rehearsals, and these jaded musicians would be hanging on his every word like 4-year-olds."

She returned the following summer and became the first woman to win Tanglewood's Koussevitsky Conducting Prize. That landed her not one job but two: She became music director at both the Eugene Symphony in Oregon and the Long Island Philharmonic in New York. Soon she was guest conducting all over North America and Europe. She became music director of the Colorado Symphony and California's Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, where she won awards for programming new music. She became the principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 1999 and became the principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 2002.

Alsop was on the fast track again, and she was mentioned as a candidate whenever an opening at the top of a major American orchestra occurred.

When Temirkanov's health continued to decline, he announced his intention to leave Baltimore, and there was an opening here. The BSO's board members were so excited about the chance to nab this fast-rising star that they offered Alsop the job, figuring the musicians wouldn't mind, even though the board had promised a longer, more participatory process.

The musicians did mind. The board announced the choice of Alsop on Wednesday, July 13, 2005, setting off headlines across the country about the first woman to head up a major American orchestra. On Saturday, the musicians released a public dissent, rare in the classical world, that "the orchestra members are unanimous in their view that the search process should continue," setting off very different headlines. English horn player Jane Marvine, the head of the BSO players committee, added in the prepared statement, "The musicians are very troubled by the fact that board members will be asked to make a crucial decision without having a reasonable opportunity to investigate and consider the issues being raised by the musicians."

"It was such a surprise," Carney says of the hiring announcement. "It upset the orchestra that the search had not been openly shared and had been suddenly truncated. The management of the orchestra was operating under a veil of secrecy and had been for 25 years. When James Glicker took over as president [in June 2004], he promised that things would be more open, but that turned out not to be true. We probably would have arrived at the same decision, but the orchestra was upset that the choice had been thrust upon us without our involvement."

The musicians tried to present the disagreement as merely a labor dispute, but then The Washington Post got hold of a letter from a BSO board member that asserted that "90 percent of the BSO musicians oppose [Alsop's] appointment," because "she either does not hear problems or--because her technical limitations prevent her from fixing them--that she ignores them." The percentage was no doubt hyperbolic, but anyone who hung around the orchestra in those days heard grumbling about Alsop's musical skills. How much sexism or other prejudice was involved--Alsop is not only a woman but also a lesbian--is impossible to prove and impossible to discount.

To say that Alsop is not as great a conductor as Temirkanov is accurate but misleading. When it comes to older repertoire, Temirkanov is better than perhaps 98 percent of the world's full-time conductors, so the BSO was highly unlikely to get someone else on his level. And by the time he came to Baltimore, he was 61, a fully mature talent. When she was offered the BSO job in 2005, Alsop was 48, a year younger than Zinman when he took over the orchestra.

Already a quite good conductor, Alsop is still developing and could well mature into a great conductor as Zinman did. And she brings other qualities to the table--most notably her passions for communication and new music--that distinguish her from most conductors without major orchestra positions. Her abilities were certainly recognized when she became, the same summer as her hiring controversy, the first conductor to win a MacArthur Fellowship Prize.

Nonetheless, the objections to her hiring shook her badly. "It was a very trying and stressful experience in many ways," she told The New York Times at the time. "To be perfectly honest, my initial reaction, when it all started, was to run: `Gosh, who needs this?'"

The BSO board rebuffed the musicians' objections and scheduled a July 20 signing ceremony to be followed by a news conference. Before she would sign the contract, though, Alsop insisted on meeting with the musicians.

"It wasn't a major Nobel speech," she recalls, "it was only 10 minutes long. But I felt that they didn't know me yet. They didn't know my thought process and what I could bring to the orchestra, so I tried to explain to them the areas I felt needed to be addressed--the debt, the fact that subscriptions had fallen off, the fact that they hadn't made a recording in 10 years. I explained how I could change that. I talked about artistic goals and what I thought I could achieve with them. I had a contract--I hadn't signed it yet. It was up to me at that point."

Alsop told the musicians she was going to leave the stage so they could talk it over, but before she could reach the wings, the players called her back and pledged their support. She signed the contract.

"It was an interesting moment," Marvine remembers. "There was a great need to reach out to her. She came out to rehearsal to find out if this relationship could work. We asked her if she would take the orchestra in a new direction, and she laid out a vision for the orchestra, what projects she wanted to take on. The orchestra stepped right up to welcome her and to express our desire to support her.

"Many of those projects are now happening--the recording, broadcasting, new music, tours. She has displayed a commitment to the organization, to the community, and to the amount of energy and work required to pull off those projects. No one can remain unaffected by that. It's always been very sad for me that Marin has to answer those questions everywhere she goes. We've always been reluctant to revisit the controversy in too much depth because it only keeps it alive."

Nowadays, everyone in the BSO organization--Alsop, the musicians, the administrators--is reluctant to talk about those turbulent weeks in July 2005. Everyone claims that it's all in the past, that everything is fine now. But one can still sense an underlying tension. The musicians are still keenly aware of the differences between Alsop and Temirkanov, and when those differences are mentioned to Alsop in an interview, she bristles defensively as if an unhealed wound were being jabbed.

On the other hand, she seems to be connecting with the musicians on a musical level. In her opening weekend, not just Adams' Fearful Symmetries but also Mahler's Symphony No. 5 sounded far more confident and colorful than anything Alsop had gotten out of the BSO in her earlier guest-conducting stints.

"The vibe I got was they had a bit of a chip on their shoulder," she says of her earlier encounters with the orchestra. "It was a slightly apathetic, slightly diffident vibe. What caused that could be anything from feeling out of the loop in the hiring to a despondency about the future. That said, it was like a blanket over the orchestra that was relatively easy to lift. Underneath was their true nature, which was extremely engaged. Once the blanket was removed, that blossomed."

Much of the musicians' despondency was due to the BSO's troubled financial situation. Attendance was underwhelming, and the annual deficit had ballooned to $7 million by the end of the 2005-'06 season. The situation was so dire that James Glicker, the president who oversaw Alsop's hiring, was replaced on an interim basis by board member W. Gar Richlin. Richlin realized that corporations and the wealthy were reluctant to donate money to an organization that was running at a deficit and eating away at its endowment.

"We were living beyond our means," explains Richlin's successor, current president and CEO Paul Meecham. "We weren't selling enough tickets. We weren't raising enough money, and people told us it was because they didn't want to fund a deficit. So we made a one-time, $18 million withdrawal from the endowment to eliminate the accumulated debt, and then separated the endowment from the operating budget to prevent that option in the future. Then we put in procedures to make sure we stayed within our budget."

The surgery worked. The financial bleeding stopped, and the orchestra reported a balanced budget in 2006-'07 for the first time in five years. But the question remained: How could the BSO lure more people into the concert hall at a time when classical audiences were declining almost everywhere? The fact that Alsop was likely to stir up interest as a gender pioneer and as a charismatic media personality was obviously a factor in her selection. But there other barriers keeping people away, especially price.

"If you're charging $70-$80 a ticket," Meecham acknowledges, "that's a lot for someone who says, `I'm curious about symphonic music--maybe I'll check it out.' Beth Mealey, our vice president of marketing, came up with the idea: `Let's have a flat subscription price of $25. It'll get a lot more people into the hall, which is, after all, celebrating its 25th anniversary." It was a great idea, but how could we afford it? Fortunately, PNC had just acquired Mercantile Bank and wanted to make a good impression in the community, so they agreed to underwrite the $25 tickets. It can't work if you don't have that kind of underwriting."

The plan worked. The BSO reports a 14 percent increase in overall subscription packages sold compared to last season with the percentage of new subscribers going from 14 percent last season to 26 percent this season. An average of 318 more seats were sold per Meyerhoff concert than the season before. When the Meyerhoff opened its windows for subscription sales on March 3 this year, the line stretched around the block. Alsop herself stopped by to share some doughnuts and chat with those in line.

"I had said that I believed everyone in the Baltimore area should be able to afford to attend a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performance," she says. "Just talking to people who were lined up at the box office, they said the $25 ticket plan gave them the incentive to try the symphony for the first time or to restart a subscription that they'd let lapse. There was an eagerness there that bodes well for the orchestra."

But Alsop wants to reach more than just the people who are sitting in the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall or the Music Center at Strathmore (the BSO's second home in North Bethesda). She wants the BSO to be heard on CDs, on downloads, on the radio, and on tour. "In a good week," she says, "you can reach maybe 7,000 people in live performances, but with one recording or one broadcast you can reach tens of thousands."

She has already negotiated a contract with Naxos Records to record a Dvor%uFFFDk symphony cycle with the BSO; the first of the three discs will be released early next year. She will also follow up The Red Violin with another recording for Sony Classical of a contemporary American composer, Jay Greenberg. She has already put one of the BSO's live performances at the top of the iTunes classical chart, and she promises at least one tour in the 2009-'10 season and maybe two.

As part of raising the BSO's international profile, Alsop wants to re-establish the association with new music and American music that the orchestra had in Zinman's day. In an era when it seems that the Sunday arts section of every daily paper in the U.S. has run a story on the "graying" of classical-music audiences, new music is often touted as a way to lure younger audiences to the symphony hall. And yet the attendance at new-music concerts is markedly lower than at concerts featuring the repertoire's trusty war-horses. So which is it? Is new music the magic pill for classical music's box-office woes or a dose of poison?

Alsop argues that it all depends on which new music you perform and how you perform it. If you program the highly theoretical, barely listenable academic music of the late 20th century, no one's going to be happy but the academics. If you grudgingly program new music as a "token" of hipness with a conductor with no enthusiasm for the task, the results are predictable.

But, she argues, if you program contemporary compositions that provide melodic pleasure and emotional connection, if you program them consistently as if they were as valid as any other kind of art music, and if you have conductors who genuinely like the work and understand its technical demands, audiences will respond.

"Art has to be a reflection of the times you're living in," Alsop insists. "All music was new music at one time. The nine Beethoven symphonies were all new and they created an uproar. Some people loved them, and some people hated them. But as the Romantic era became so bloated, people lost faith in that mode of expression and went to the other end of the spectrum--the music became all about pattern and ideas. We went through this unfortunate period when the less emotional, the less expressive, the less accessible the music was, the better it was regarded. It was the old Brussels-sprouts syndrome--if it's fun, it can't be good for you. I don't agree with that--I think art should be fun, and by that I don't mean trite."

Western art music is now enjoying a renaissance in composition. This season Alsop has launched a series to showcase major works by such living composers as John Corigliano, John Adams, Tan Dun, H.K. Gruber, Aaron Jay Kernis, Mark O'Connor, Steven Mackey, Christopher Rouse, James MacMillan, Thomas Ades, and Joan Tower. Alsop not only considers them the best in new music, but she has also worked with most of them and developed personal friendships with many of them. This represents a sea change from Temirkanov, who once remarked that most American and contemporary music just wasn't very good.

These Ardent Modernists, as they've been called, have embraced melody, poignancy, humor, and groove, but it would be wrong to assume that they're serving up warmed-over romanticism or pop/jazz for strings and woodwinds. Contemporary composition is still challenging for audiences, but at least now there's hope of an emotional payoff if you put the work in.

"Music today is not easy music," Alsop cautions. "The pendulum has swung only halfway back. You have melodies now, but the harmonies are advanced. Dissonance is part of our world--you watch the news, and it goes from desolation to violence to a baby being born in 10 seconds--and composers use that. We can't pretend we live in the perfect harmonium anymore. Everyone thinks of Samuel Barber's exhilarating melodies, but his harmonies were very angular--lots of seconds and fourths. Chris Rouse does the same thing. Dissonance can be a very effective way of reaching consonance in this day and age."

Alsop's first concerts as BSO music director after the opening gala were a long weekend of shows pairing Adams' Fearful Symmetries and Mahler's Symphony No. 5. She took the Meyerhoff stage in her knee-length, shiny black-satin jacket; the pink lining was extended and turned to create eye-catching cuffs at the end of each sleeve. Her sandy hair was cut short, and she stepped up on the natural-wood podium in her heels.

She began with the Adams, and soon her elbows were pumping in time with the pulsing music. The orchestra struggled early with a distorted, too-loud synthesizer (the BSO has always had problems making electric instruments work at the Meyerhoff), but eventually the ensemble locked into the piece's breathless momentum, even as the harmonies careened wildly. Before long, the conductor was rotating her hips like a boogie dancer. There were times when the melody or the harmony refused to go where it was expected but instead took a surprising detour. The effect, though, was never weird for weirdness' sake; in fact, the toppling of expectations was often quite witty.

"Humor is so important to music," Alsop argues. "You should have a relationship with art like you have with your friends, and nothing is more boring than a friend without a sense of humor. The same is true of art. Any art form that takes itself so seriously that it has no humor becomes deadly dull.

"On the other hand, you don't want friends who never stop joking," she notes, pointing out that while Fearful Symmetries is "a fun, hip, big-band dance piece," The Wound-Dresser, the Adams composition the BSO played the following weekend, is "one of the most poignant, moving pieces about loss and war ever written.

"[Adams is] a composer of tremendous range, and the same is true of all the new music we're doing this year. Some of the music is neo-Romantic, some is edgy. Some is urban, some is pastoral. What it all has in common is a desire to make an emotional impact on the listener."

It remains to be seen if Alsop can convince Maryland audiences that contemporary art music can be as important to them as it is to her. But she has already convinced the musicians. When she turned the orchestra over to Tan Dun in October so the Chinese composer could conduct his cello concerto, the musicians demonstrated how much they had grasped the demands of contemporary music already. Alsop had structured the program to include pieces by Shostakovich and Borodin also based on exotic Asian folk musics, thus suggesting all kinds of connections.

"What interests me are big ideas," Alsop declares. "I like the idea of putting together a season that has a message. I want to understand the role of classical music in society today. I don't want to regurgitate the same thing over and over again. Here in Baltimore, I finally have an opportunity to explore these ideas. This is the first place where people have been willing to rethink the basic assumptions behind classical music--whether it be the role of new music or the price of tickets."

Marin Alsop conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and guest violinist Timothy Fain at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Nov. 29 and 30.

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