A Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert at the Meyerhoff is nothing like a Hopkins Symphony Orchestra performance at Shriver Hall.
At the Meyerhoff, attire is dressy, the atmosphere stuffy and orchestra members mostly unknown by name to the audience. In Shriver, primly suited couples mingle with students in jeans and baseball caps. Pre-concert, orchestra members leap from the stage to hug campus pals.
At the Meyerhoff, the audience applauds the concert master and conductor before a performance of Beethoven's Fifth. At Shriver Hall, that happens too, but a balcony gang takes their enthusiasm one step further, brandishing a written cheer more apt for baseball than Beethoven.
During intermission at the Meyerhoff, symphony members vanish backstage. At Shriver, where the Hopkins orchestra will perform tonight, musicians wait in the restroom line with everyone else.
And there are differences not readily apparent, but more profound. They are differences that have to do with music's role in the lives of the amateur musicians who play for free in the Hopkins orchestra; people like Max Derrickson, principal percussionist. Once, Derrickson, a copyright examiner at the Library of Congress with a master's in performance from Peabody Conservatory, played timpani professionally, but it soon became a painfully soulless exercise.
"Just performing this music is great," Derrickson says, "compared to the days when I was driving for 40 hours a week, playing gigs everywhere to make a living and getting to the rehearsals and just being around a bunch of people doing this solely because they're trying to make a living."
Landing a job with a professional orchestra the caliber of Baltimore's would end the hustle but is as difficult as becoming a Baltimore Oriole, says principal oboist Keith Kaneda. Besides, he and his colleagues, many of whom are also highly trained and have pondered professional careers, find that for them, not playing among the ultra-elite has enormous advantages.
"The truth of it is," Derrickson says with a long, thoughtful sigh, the "joy of performing a concert is greatly reduced" in a professional setting. "The reason is that there is the choice to donate time to be a part of this group. A professional doesn't have a choice. The results [for an amateur orchestra] are really in my estimation much more rewarding."
Within an amateur orchestra, for instance, the opportunity to play great music is a privilege unsullied by marketing strategies that justify guest appearances by pop/folkie James Taylor as well as cellist Yo Yo Ma. Jed Gaylin, its conductor of seven years, calls the Hopkins Symphony and others like it "one of the most pure endeavors I know."
Nor do amateurs ever complain of having to perform the "New World Symphony" or the "Eroica" again and again, because they don't. With four annual concerts, music stays fresh and fun.
"It's heaven," said violist Mary Parlange, who joined the Hopkins Symphony shortly after moving to Baltimore from California three years ago. "We've got this great group of people who enjoy the music, but it's not our life. We can come to it once a week and have a blast."
It's a blast, even at a "black Monday" rehearsal before tonight's performance when the orchestra lurches unsteadily through the program -- Baltimore composer Mark Lanz Weiser's "Landscapes" and Antonin Dvorak's 7th Symphony -- as Gaylin, in purple turtleneck and jeans, taps an arsenal of allusions, gestures and rhythmic ploys to pull them through.
Conducting without a baton, Gaylin seems to channel the music through his entire being. He may break the trance and lapse into broad Bawlmerese to press his point. Or he'll deliver a mini-lecture with stern humor: "You have to pay taxes. You're going to die one day, and you've got to count!"
This is crunch week. Even though their lives are crammed with work, classes, exams, family and other obligations, orchestra members realize they have to practice if they're going to do justice to the world premiere of Weiser's piece, let alone Dvorak's majestic symphony.
Gaylin, also conductor of the professional Bay-Atlantic Symphony in New Jersey, has led the Hopkins orchestra since 1993. Working with amateurs has unique rewards, he says. A professional orchestra may be "technically brilliant but set in its ways." A symphony such as the Hopkins, perhaps comparable in size and ability to 19th and early 20th century professional orchestras, tends to be more receptive to his musical interpretations, he says.
Over a six-week span, the Hopkins Symphony practices a piece longer than a professional orchestra. And in concert, even after a shaky final rehearsal, the 80-member orchestra generally rises to the occasion, to "play 170 percent better than they should," Gaylin says.
He invokes a cardinal rule: "Don't ever conduct down to an orchestra. They will never give you more than that."