By Ricky O’Bannon
In March of 1849, twelve-and-a-half cents would buy a ticket to a “Grand Concert of Music” featuring an “African Monkey and several Chinese Dogs.”
This was the description from a small ad in The Baltimore Sun that advertised the first-ever orchestra concert in Baltimore. Notably, while space was made for the place of origin of the wildlife, the ad did not include just what music would be played.
“This was a big deal,” said Michael Lisicky. “[For American cities], it was a real novelty to have an orchestra. We're talking about the mid-1800s when we're still developing what our culture is.”
Lisicky is an oboist for the BSO, but he’s also an author who is researching the history of orchestral music in Baltimore for a book to be released next year to mark the orchestra’s 100th anniversary.
That 1849 concert was put on by a “Mr. A. Mutti” who Lisicky said likely led the orchestra in a series of traveling carnival, variety show-style concerts across the country. The program might seem a little unusual by modern standards, but it wasn't uncommon to mix classical acts like opera arias with vaudeville performers in American concerts around the turn of the 20th century.
The first Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert wasn’t until February of 1916, and Lisicky explained that in the lead up to that point, public music was a rare occasion for the city.
The American music scene centered upon the church, singing, some pianos in upper-middle-class homes and brass and military bands. After its founding in 1857, the Peabody Institute offered an oratorio social club and held its first regular orchestra concert series in 1873, but for the most part, Lisicky said Baltimore was an industrial city with limited public music offerings.
Because of its size, Baltimore became a destination point for out-of-town orchestras including the Boston Symphony in 1887, the Philadelphia Symphony in 1907 and the New York Philharmonic in 1911.
“I’m not sure if people thought at the time that Baltimore was capable of having this high brow culture,” Lisicky said. “The biggest thing we had at the time was the steel mill at Sparrow’s Point. We were culturally very working class.
“I think we were very defensive of our culture,” he said. “We needed our own identity. We didn't have that identity marker like other cities of our size.”
By the early 20th century and particularly after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 left much of the city in need of rebuilding, the idea of an orchestra that Baltimoreans could rally around as their own gained traction. Peabody offered vision for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Mayor James Preston made it a political cause.
“Mayor Preston felt that orchestra concerts — public or municipal music — were just as important as public toilets,” Lisicky said. “It surprised me that it seemed so important. The mayor really championed this.”
Baltimoreans saw the orchestra much in the same way cities might view their local baseball or football team. The first concert on Feb. 11, 1916, sold out very quickly, and Lisicky said there were complaints that there was only one ticket office in the city with hour-long waits.
The concert season opened with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 at the Lyric Theatre, and Lisicky said that sources at the time suggest while the quality wasn’t there in performance, the city was excited about what the future for the orchestra would be.
“This was something of their own. There was a lot of hope,” he said. “The concert was flawed but deemed a success.”
Perhaps nowhere was that hope about what could be ahead for a Baltimore-based orchestra better summed up than in a review from the Baltimore Sun:
“The occasion was one that will remain long in the memory of all who were present, for in a sense this concert marked a turning point in the musical life of Baltimore. With the encouragement and sympathy that the Baltmoreans will undoubtedly give this new venture, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will soon develop into a notable feature of our civic life. It is not too much to believe that in the course of time an orchestra that will take its place with the most important organizations in the country will result from the beginning that was made at the Lyric last evening.”