During an often stressful travel period, performances by volunteers attempt to give airport patrons a lift for the holidays

At BWI, the gift of music


On a cold, clear Saturday morning, a classical quintet from the National Institutes of Health Community Orchestra is playing Christmas carols in a soaring space - the sound sometimes accompanied by a loudspeaker.

Moments pass when nobody appears to listen as people come and go. But the musicians say smiles, waves, even a pause in stride from a hurried traveler are all the applause they need in this unusual setting.

At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, while throngs of holiday travelers scurry along only to be held up in security lines, volunteer musical groups try to brighten their journeys.

A woman takes a moment to walk over and stand by the NIH players.

"They're very intent on their music. It's a lovely touch," says Nancy Landers of Silver Spring, before she heads for her flight to Providence, R.I., clutching her boarding pass and government-issued identification.

Another traveler, Pastora Crispino of Baltimore, said, "This really is the spirit of Christmas."

After the group finishes "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," a man stops to request the theme from Exodus, but the musicians do not have the sheet music for that song.


Steve Soroka, who plays the timpani for the NIH quintet, says the live music is a simple gift.

"People do what they do, but it still evokes a certain feeling," he says. He adds the spirit of music can be healing in a divisive time.

The holiday service program is coordinated by the Maryland Aviation Administration as a treat for thousands of passengers who pass near Concourse B in the new Southwest Airlines terminal.

"I come in on my day off for this," says series organizer Whitney Kidd, a customer service coordinator, who adds that she enjoys hearing traditional English melodies, such as "I Saw Three Ships," float through the airport's atrium. "We feel it lightens the atmosphere."

20 musicians

The NIH Community Orchestra, which draws players from Towson to Bethesda, performed twice this month, the second time with 20 musicians. The Twelve Bassoons of Christmas, based in Finksburg, performed last weekend. And today, strolling minstrels from the Heritage Singers in Severn will serenade travelers. The strolling minstrels will sing throughout the airport, Kidd said.

Tomorrow morning, a Prince George's County high school brass choir will perform through a separate invitation from Southwest Airlines.

Last performance

That will be the last scheduled performance of holiday music to warm up the airport space this season.

For volunteer players and singers, part of the fun is the airport's architecture: the high glass ceiling, shiny white tile floors, no sound-deadening carpet. As a result, they say, the space resonates with rich sound that matches a church or concert hall, making for what musicians call "a live room."

"That [acoustical quality] works to our advantage, because the bassoon is one of the softer instruments in the orchestra. It doesn't project like a brass instrument," says Norma R. Hooks, organizer of the Finksburg ensemble.

Meanwhile, after an hour or two of making spirits rise in an often-stressful setting, the NIH quintet puts away its instruments. "Some of these people wouldn't go to a formal concert," Amy Wager, a postdoctoral fellow and flutist, says after hitting high notes in about 30 French, German, English and Italian carols.

"But we have a captive audience," she adds with a laugh.

Her Saturday morning volunteer work was well worth it, she says. "We saw people smile as they passed, and that was more than enough."

Also appearing twice this month was the Northwestern High School brass choir, composed of eight juniors and seniors led by Anthony Townes, the Hyattsville school's director of bands and music department chair.

On a recent weekday evening, senior Harold Houston, lead trumpet, snaps his fingers to get everyone tapping to the beat before they play "We Three Kings of Orient Are," followed by "Go Tell it on the Mountain."

By chance, Townes' former professor and musical mentor, Melvin Miles, director of bands at Morgan State University, crosses the terminal to hear the choir play on his way to Chicago.

Face lights up

As the two men shake hands, Townes' face lights up like a candle at the crossroads between his teacher and his students.

Miles says the sound of the music and harmony give him an unexpected lift. "It really adds something immeasurable. It's the difference between going to the movies and the theater," he says as he listens with expert ears to the eight wind players.

As if to prove his point, a New York businessman flying home to Long Island briskly gives up his spot in the security lines and turns the corner to walk over and listen to the brass choir. Said traveler James G. McAward, an amateur bass trombone player: "I had to see if this was live or the best stereo I ever heard."


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