Ed Polochick considers himself one of the luckiest guys in the world. “I get to do what I love,” said the soon-to-be 60-year-old conductor of Concert Artists of Baltimore. “No one can be more passionate about their profession than I am.”
It’s that passion that inspired Polochick to found the Baltimore Symphony Chamber Singers in 1981 in order to give area singers more professional experience, and then to ask himself, “What would they sound like with a small orchestra?”
The result was Concert Artists of Baltimore, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, highlighted by an end-of-season performance of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” on Saturday, May 5, at 8 p.m., at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.
A child prodigy
Polochick, born near Scranton, Pa., came to Baltimore in 1976 to study piano with renowned pianist Leon Fleisher, whom he credits not only with giving him a solid foundation as a pianist but making him a true musician as well.
“I wanted to get my act together as a pianist,” said Polochick. “I was a born conductor, but piano was my first love,” he said.
He had begun lessons at the age of 4, when his mother found a teacher who recognized that the young boy who was pestering for lessons actually had perfect pitch.
By the time he was 5, Polochick had given his first full-length recital, at 8 played Carnegie Hall, and at 12 was touring the country with his teacher, Anna Vanko-Liva, with whom he studied until he left for college. He received his B.A. from Swarthmore, and master’s degrees in both piano and conducting from Peabody Conservatory.
“I always knew I was going to be a musician,” said Polochick, though he had a passion for marine biology as well.
His talent and accomplishments have earned Polochick the Leopold Stokowski Conducting Award, the Peggy and Yale Gordon Achievement Award, and the JHU Distinguished Alumni Award.
In addition to leading Concert Artists of Baltimore, Polochick serves as music director for the Lincoln (Nebraska) Symphony Orchestra, and makes guest conducting appearances throughout the U.S. and around the world. He is also a frequent guest lecturer and radio commentator, and teaches conducting at Peabody.
Despite his personal accomplishments, bringing Concert Artists of Baltimore into being and nurturing the company’s growth for the past quarter-century has been one of the great joys of his life (“though not all daisies and roses,” he added with a chuckle).
A vision for Baltimore
Polochick hadn’t been in Baltimore all that long when he began thinking there was no reason his adopted city couldn’t have a chamber orchestra and chorale of the caliber of the London-based Choir of St. Martin-in-the-Fields or the (now defunct) Robert Shaw Chorale, two of the most renowned choirs in the world.
“Let’s lead the way,” Polochick said to himself, who was serving as musical director of the BSO Chorus at the time.
The name Concert Artists of Baltimore was chosen specifically to give equal weight to the value of both the professional singers and instrumental musicians in the company.
On the plus side, the name gives neither group partiality, The downside, Polochick admits, is that it doesn’t clearly identify what the group is all about. “Unfortunately, that’s still true to some extent today,” he said.
From the beginning, Polochick had high aspirations for the company, planning to extend its reach beyond Baltimore to a national and international reputation. It hasn’t been easy.
“Those who know us, love us,” he said, noting that the company has been reviewed on a national level, but adding, “After 25 years, it’s time to break out of our shell.
“I thought that all I needed to do was build a great product and ‘they would come,’” he continued. “But people didn’t know about us.”
One of the problems facing not only Concert Artists of Baltimore but almost every arts organization in town, Polochick observed, is that Baltimore has long had a stigma that it’s more a sports-loving rather than arts-appreciative town.
“I’ll ask people (sometimes standing in line at the grocery store) if they like classical music, and they’ll say they don’t understand it,” Polochick said. “But I tell everyone, ‘You don’t have to understand it. You just have to experience it live.’”
On occasion, Polochick will offer these doubters free tickets, just to give them the opportunity to hear a live performance, something that even in this day and age not everyone has had a chance to do.
For a variety of reasons — ranging from technology, to lack of exposure, to lack of funding for the arts in schools — “We’ve lost generations [of concert goers],” Polochick said. But he’s particularly gratified when some of these same people who have told him they don’t like classical music will come backstage after a performance with tears in their eyes, saying, ‘I had no idea this was what it was like.’”
What Baltimore needs
While there are certainly plenty of folks in Baltimore who support the arts, what has been lacking — especially in recent years — is the ongoing financial support of both corporate sponsors and individual donors, said Polochick.
Despite the fiscal challenges, Polochick is especially proud of the fact that the members of Concert Artists are all professional musicians (meaning they receive a paycheck for performing), and that the company has been in the black ever since it was founded, thanks in part to its original and ongoing donors, such as the Peggy and Yale Gordon Trust. .
“Baltimore suffers from an inferiority complex,” said Polochick, though without good reason, he added. He pointed out, for example, that the BSO was founded in 1916 as the country’s first municipal orchestra.
More currently, according to a recent American Style magazine reader poll, Baltimore ranks ninth among top U.S. arts destinations in the big city category, and was also voted one of the top ten places in the country for independent filmmakers to live and work by MovieMaker magazine.
What Baltimore needs is “charismatic” leadership to promote the arts, Polochick believes. “We need to connect to the people.”
Polochick himself is working to make that happen, as he enthusiastically pursues collaborative efforts with other performing arts organizations in the city.
“I didn’t form Concert Artists as a rival to other groups,” Polochick said, “but as a complement to what else goes on in Baltimore.”
To that end, Concert Artists appears with the BSO in its annual performance of Handel’s Messiah, has played at the performance of the Nutcracker, and will be playing for Lyric Opera Baltimore on Friday, April 20, and Sunday, April 22, in its new production of Faust.
25th anniversary concert
Polochick calls the May 5 concert “the cherry on top of the season,” as Concert Artists will perform with the Peabody Concert Orchestra and a chorus of hundreds, including Peabody-Hopkins Chorus, Peabody Singers and Peabody Children’s Chorus, with featured appearances by soprano Jennifer Holbrook, countertenor Peter Lee, and baritone Kevin Wetzel.
“We’re the only group that pulls together these collaborative efforts to this extent,” said Polochick. “I’m good at this stuff,” he added with a laugh.
Though his career has him globetrotting around the world, Polochick is always happy to return to Baltimore. “I love it here,” he said.
He has poured that affection into his historic Butchers Hill home, one of the summer residences of Betsy Patterson and Jerome Bonaparte (Napoleon’s younger brother). His other passions include fishing and art.
But even with his crowded schedule, Polochick has more plans for the future, though he can’t talk about them all just yet. “Something is cooking all the time,” he said.