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Mobtown Modern Makes a Name For Baltimore's Contemporary Music Scene

A saxophone quartet performs Six Bagatellas - mobtown modern
A saxophone quartet performs Six Bagatellas - mobtown modern
Baltimore is known for different things by different names. "Charm City" connotes tight-knit rowhome communities and even custom cakes, while "the City that Bleeds" gained national fame with critically-acclaimed TV serials like Homicide and The Wire. Now, Brian Sacawa, Curator of the Contemporary Museum's Mobtown Modern Music Series, is working to link Baltimore's oldest nickname, "Mobtown," with an ambitious approach to new sounds.

As a Sergeant First Class saxophonist in the U.S. Army Field Band who obtained graduate degrees from the University of Michigan and UMass-Amherst, then taught at the University of Arizona, Sacawa has seen plenty of the country to compare to what Baltimore bus benches advertise as "the Greatest City in America." After living here for three years at the turn of the millennium, he returned in 2006 to take an active role in the development of a robust, local, contemporary music scene.

"Throughout my musical career I've always been interested in contemporary music, and as a saxophonist that's all there is to play," Sacawa said by phone just before Thanksgiving. Upon returning to Baltimore after his academic tour, Sacawa perceived a gap in the city's otherwise-strong musical environment.

"There were a lot of composers who weren't being performed in Baltimore," he remembers, and the next thought led to the evolution of the Mobtown Modern series. "There's all this music I'd like to hear, so why not start a series to showcase these composers and performers [in Baltimore?]"

It was a quick and easy jump from the decision to showcase contemporary music in town to a choice of which organizations to approach for venue space and support. The Contemporary Museum on Centre Street in the Mount Vernon cultural district was a natural first place to pitch, and board president Pamela Berman recalls when she and then-director of the museum Irene Hofmann first heard about the Mobtown Modern concept.

"It dropped in our laps," Berman says, pointing out the serendipity that sometimes drives the city's best arts programming. "It was a complete experiment, and three years later it's ten concerts a season including collaboration with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I don't think any of us imagined that degree of growth and acknowledgment."

Having caught lightning in a bottle, Sacawa began to arrange shows in a space adjacent to the Contemporary Museum owned by the Walters Art Gallery that was usually used for storage. After two seasons, the Walters needed the room and Mobtown Modern needed a move. Sacawa wanted to move "somewhere more acoustically hospitable," where the series could continue to grow in its amount of offerings and its visibility around town. So the Contemporary staff, Sacawa, and friends shifted the third season up Charles Street to the Station North arts district, where Metro Gallery owner Sarah Williams welcomed them with open arms and ample performance space.

For its current fourth season, Mobtown Modern will call the Windup Space at Charles and North Avenue home. There, down the avenue from MICA buildings and the Load of Fun Gallery, Sacawa hopes to fulfill another of his goals that goes along with expanding performance options for Mobtown music fans. "The series attracts a really diverse audience, which is what I was hoping to do," he reflects. "I spent a lot of time in academia, which can be a very isolating place. So I was used to playing a show for ten people and knew all of them." Mobtown Modern is a direct needle jab at that bubble, and Sacawa is hearing a hiss, if not a pop. "Consistently at our shows I look out and half the people there are people I've never seen before."

"I wanted to establish that this sort of music is relevant and engaging enough that it can exist outside the confines of a support system like a university or a conservatory and still thrive." Taking contemporary music out of institutions, even when an institution like the Contemporary Museum is sponsoring Mobtown Modern, means that longtime patrons of the arts can mingle with art school types and people Sacawa calls "adventurous sound-seekers." This year, all of them will find sonic stimulation in Mobtown Modern, but the format will deviate somewhat from past seasons.

Previous concerts were filled with performances that pivoted around central themes. In this fourth season, Sacawa and colleagues are "painting with broader strokes." One example is the upcoming Synchronicity collaboration with the BSO, dedicated to Baltimore native and minimalist music luminary Philip Glass's Glassworks.

No matter the format, though, Mobtown Modern strengthens by the season, always focusing on Sacawa's core principles of showcasing local talent, presenting emerging voices, providing a venue for interesting and exceptional out-of-town artists, and above all, presenting music that is new to Baltimore listeners.

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Photo Credits:

- A saxophone quartet performs Six Bagatelles as part of the Contemporary Museum's Mobtown Modern Music Series - photo courtesy of Robert McIver/Mobtown Modern Music Series
- Brian Sacawa, Curator, Contemporary Museum's Mobtown Modern Music Series plays a saxophone - Arianne Teeple
- Brian Sacawa poses at the Contemporary Museum - Arianne Teeple
-The Contemporary Museum - Arianne Teeple
- Violinist Courtney Orlando peforms during a Mobtown Modern event - photo courtesy of Robert McIver/Mobtown Modern Music Series
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