At one of the concerts violinist Isidor Saslav played earlier this week, someone asked: "Do you need a license to play that thing?"
"Actually, it was a very good question -- as are many of the questions I get from fifth graders," Saslav says with a smile. The former concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony and now the concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony, Saslav and his concert pianist wife, Ann, return to Baltimore every winter for 26 concerts that bring chamber music to Baltimore's inner-city schools. They have been doing it since 1977 in a program funded by the Peggy and Yale Gordon Charitable Trust.
They play two concerts a day for two weeks -- their current stint ends Tuesday -- and don't mind the pace. "We lived here for 17 years and our children grew up here," Ann Saslav says. "We're grateful to this city and we owe it something."
The Saslavs left Baltimore in 1986 when Isidor accepted an offer from the New Zealand Symphony in Wellington. Theirs is a bicontinental marriage. He lives for nine months a year in Wellington and she lives for nine months near Dallas, the base for her pianistic career. She spends three months a year in Wellington and he spends three months a year in Texas.
And when they visit with each other, they concertize -- "normal" concerts for adults and others for children like those developed in Baltimore. They estimate that they've played for more than 40,000 children, bringing them Schubert, Bach, Beethoven and Grieg for the first time.
"But it's not just familiar classics," Isidor says. "We tailor these programs to the kids. For our concerts in Baltimore, we've learned a lot about music by African-American composers. We play Scott Joplin, of course, but also such composers as Clarence Cameron White, a remarkable violinist-composer trained at Oberlin around the turn of the century and whose music ought to be better known. When we play concerts in Texas, we're likely to use music by Mexican-American and Spanish composers."
At the Saslavs' school programs they encourage participation, letting the children play the violin ("It's my second fiddle, but you'd be surprised at how nice a sound can be made simply by sawing on the open E string," Isidor says) and letting the children move notes around on a touch-fastener bulletin board to create their own five-note tunes.
"One of the questions the kids ask most frequently is 'How do LTC you learn to blend together?' " says Ann. "That's a tremendously intelligent question -- because blending together is what chamber music's all about."