Ministry of music promotes lasting ties BSO: Through its various outreach programs, the symphony hopes to forge links with the African-American community.

March 22, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In a large room in the basement of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, about 140 church musicians met together the Saturday before last to sing and study.

Led by choral conductor Stanley J. Thurston, minister of music at First Baptist Church of Northwest Washington, musicians from churches all over the Baltimore area read through a stack of new sacred choral music.

There were gentle two-part songs and spirituals arranged into four-part anthems calculated to fill a church with angelic sound.

"Oh, this is pretty," sighed Wanda Valentine, who lives in Glen Burnie and sings alto with the choir of St. James Episcopal Church in Baltimore. The song, "Empty Now," was not difficult, but the arrangement was lyrical and thoughtful: a little meditation on the meaning of Jesus' life, pertinent to the Lenten season.

Thurston, who will participate with a group from his church "family" in a worship service today at Baltimore's Union Temple Baptist Church, took the choir through sight-reading exercises, fundamentals of good sound production and interpretation. "See we can tell a story," he said after a bland run-through of one song.

By any definition -- especially the foot-stomping, hand-clapping,

roof-raising gospel rendition of "Down by the Riverside" that ended the day -- the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's fourth annual Ministry of Music Workshop was a rousing success.

"I had to turn people away," lamented Patricia Berry, the BSO's community outreach manager.

"The fact that this room is full is an indicator," said Stuart O. Simms, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and a member of the BSO board of directors. "I think we have about outgrown the recital hall."

But the immediate benefits, for the BSO staff and board, are secondary. The real goal of the workshop, one of several projects of the orchestra's Community Outreach Committee, is to build linkages with the African-American community.

"We're in this for the long haul," said John Gidwitz, executive director of the BSO, a $20 million-a-year operation that needs constant renewal to survive.

Like many cities, Baltimore has been struggling with the effects of long-term change: middle-class flight to the suburbs, a declining tax base, threadbare inner-city schools, and crumbling infrastructure and social services.

And its major arts institutions, like those of Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis and Cleveland, are grappling with graying audiences, a less-educated population base and tired commuters who would just as soon stay home in Columbia or Severna Park than drive to downtown Baltimore for a concert, play or art exhibit.

The BSO has known this for years. It was during the 1988-1989 season that it initiated a dialogue with 150 leaders of the African-American community, representing business, political, social, civic, religious and cultural forces.

Out of that meeting came the Community Outreach Committee, which has grown to about 200 members, and several initiatives to reach an audience alienated from Baltimore's traditional arts.

"Some of the difficulties history had created for us," Gidwitz said. "The fact that the symphony was built and paid for by an audience that was not integrated, went back decades."

A former member of the BSO staff recalled one prominent black businessman at that first dialogue saying: "When I go to the BSO, there's no one there who looks like me. Why should I come back?"

Initiatives

In the decade since those discussions, the BSO has created a number of initiatives targeted at the African-American community, including its Arts Excel program of mixing core classroom subjects with music and the "Classically Black" series of programs featuring African-American artists and composers.

The music ministry workshop is among the smallest of these programs, but it may be the most important.

"It has built a working bond with ministers of music, who have the most direct contact with music lovers in the community," said Gidwitz.

Lorenzo Handy, a member of the Community Outreach Committee and its Religious Task Force, represents the kind of linkage the BSO seeks to build. Handy is choir director of Calvary Lutheran Church, an associate minister at Union Baptist Church and an arts columnist and calendar editor for Buzz-n 'Round Baltimore, a bimonthly cultural guide targeted to African-American readers.

"I like to think that my events listing is the most comprehensive of any in the city," he said proudly. He's probably right, if for no other reason than he's on hundreds of church mailing lists and includes in his calendar many of the recitals, choir concerts and music worship services that never seem to find their way into mainstream publications.

This vast underground music circuit could supply an organization like the BSO with overflow audiences -- if only the orchestra knew how to find them.

'Coming together'

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