I met the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra when I was in 5th grade. Miss Haugh, our teacher, shepherded my classmates and me on public transportation to the old Lyric Theater on Saturdays where this wonderful orchestra, led by Reginald Stewart, transported us to a world of great music we’d never experienced before.
When the orchestra, founded in 1916, hired Marin Alsop in 2007 as its seventh conductor, she immediately created OrchKids, a program that introduces children to music and guides them along as they eventually pick up instruments and play. Here’s a quote from their web site:
“OrchKids inspires its over 750 students to explore all genres of music and its orchestral, choral, drumming, composition, chamber music and mixed genre ensembles have performed with varied artists, from Roger Waters, Renee Fleming and Matisyahu to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, beat boxer Shodekeh, Pink Martini, and Hillary Hahn.”
These youngsters have performed for more than 250,000 audience members in OrchKids’ 12 years of existence. They have performed at several major venues across the United States, including the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall, DiMenna Center, Verizon Center and in many other venues in Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, District of Columbia, California, and New York.
The program starts teaching pre-school and kindergarten children with to the fundamentals of music and musicianship, and they age, they progress to playing instruments and performing in ensembles. This is life-changing and offers optimism for the future of classical music and its performers.
But the BSO, like many symphony orchestras, is struggling financially, and now its musicians are walking a picket line. The New York Times brings us up to date:
“When violent unrest spread through the streets of Baltimore in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man who suffered a spinal injury while in police custody, the Baltimore Orioles took the extraordinary step of playing in an empty stadium, barring fans because of safety concerns.
“The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra sent a different message: Its musicians gathered on the sidewalk in front of their concert hall to perform Handel, Bach and Beethoven to a crowd of hundreds seeking solace at a scarring moment.
“The musicians are now back on that same stretch of sidewalk — walking a picket line. On June 17, the orchestra’s management, citing fiscal pressures, locked the players out without pay to try to pressure them to agree to a contract guaranteeing fewer weeks of work. The sounds at the hall last week were of protesters’ drums, bullhorn chants and passing cars honking support.”
Classical music might not be your personal genre preference, but there’s a reason it has survived for centuries. A good orchestra can define a city, serve as its voice and anchor its cultural identity. Baltimore’s has grown in quality under Marin Alsop’s inspired leadership, and is recognized as one of the world’s great orchestras.
That is much too valuable to let skirmishes over money derail it. I want those OrchKids to grow up loving great music as I have, thanks to those Saturday matinee concerts.