BSO's outreach is loud and clear

Ten years after beginning the effort to widen its audience, the symphony maintains its intensity.

July 25, 1999|By HOLLY SELBY | HOLLY SELBY,SUN STAFF

On the first Friday in July, the sound of trumpets and song filled the air at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Nathan Carter was conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Morgan State University Choir as they performed "I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes" by composer Adolphus Hailstork. The 2,450-seat concert hall was nearly filled, and everyone from the cellists to the people in the last aisle seemed to be having a good time.

The concert celebrated the 10th anniversary of the symphony's Community Outreach Committee, an organization trying to increase participation by African-Americans in orchestral events, whether as audience members, volunteers, employees, financial supporters or advisory committee members.

It is just one example of the mammoth effort being made by the BSO -- and other symphonies nationwide -- to attract ethnically diverse audiences. Though nearly everyone agrees that attracting broad audiences is a good idea, how to accomplish it is a controversial topic.

What kinds of messages are sent by concerts that specifically target African-Americans? Are such performances condescending? Is it enough for the symphony's cumulative audience to be diverse even though individual concerts seem to draw audiences of one ethnic group or another?

There are nearly as many opinions on the subject as there are seats in the Meyerhoff.

A model plan

Classical music has never been the music of the masses. And it is hard to decipher why one person attends a concert and another doesn't. Personal preference and familiarity with the art form certainly play a role. But reasons for not attending a concert may be cultural as well as artistic.

In St. Louis, for example, the symphony hall is located in a former theater that at one time barred African-Americans from entering.

In Baltimore, the BSO several years ago presented a concert at the Meyerhoff featuring the great diva Leontyne Price. The audience was nearly all Caucasian. The following year, Morgan State University presented a concert at the Meyerhoff featuring Leontyne Price. The audience was nearly all African-American.

"That told me graphically how embedded the patterns of separation are in society and how big a challenge we faced in trying to overcome them," says John Gidwitz, BSO president.

The BSO outreach program this year was awarded $100,000 by the National Endowment for the Arts, and is being touted as a model plan. The symphony works with members of the African-American community to create a feeling of ownership by building a network of committees and activities specifically designed for African-Americans. It aims for diverse programming during its regular subscription series, and it tries to attract new concert-goers with performances that feature black artists.

The symphony doesn't track the ethnicity of its audience members, but there's no denying that the committee has expanded the symphony's outreach programs significantly. Still, there are nights during which a glance around the Meyerhoff reveals a nearly all-white audience. And there are other nights during which the audience is predominantly African-American.

"That is something that we have to deal with that comes out of the society we live in today," says Gidwitz. "We are doing everything we know how to bring in diverse audiences."

Ten years ago, the BSO held meetings at which African-Americans were invited to express concerns about the symphony. One hundred and forty people showed up, and the Community Outreach Committee was born. It now comprises 250 business, education, civic and church leaders. It has spawned, among other things, a concert series called "Classically Black," which features the work of African-American composers, conductors and artists from Hailstork to Bobby McFerrin.

The symphony also performs community concerts in local churches (last year's, held at New Psalmist Baptist Church, drew 1,700 people) and concerts at the Meyerhoff honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (last year's drew an overcapacity audience). There also is the "Live, Gifted and Black" project, which presents the work of contemporary African-American composers such as Hailstork.

And there's more. The committee also has developed an ecumenical choir whose members are drawn from 30 churches; an annual workshop attended by church choir directors; an educational program that last year introduced 230 children to classical music. And this fall, the BSO will produce a CD of Hailstork's music.

Through the committee, the symphony has "increased awareness that it isn't simply some elitist organization that sits off of Mount Royal Avenue," says Stuart Simms, secretary of the state's Department of Public Safety, who is also Community Outreach Committee secretary and a BSO board member. "It is just the opposite: Whether the symphony is dedicating the Raven Stadium or doing fireworks at Oregon Ridge or performing a concert at New Psalmist Church, it runs like a thread through the greater Baltimore community."

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