For city, could violins be part of the solution to violence?

May 13, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

I've been asking people recently for their thoughts on why there is so much murder on the streets of Baltimore. We passed the 100 mark for 2007 last week, with four killings in the space of 10 hours. We're well ahead of last year's pace. Over the last decade, we've had about 2,840 killings on city streets.

Too many guns, people say. Too much poverty and deprivation. Too much drugging and competing for drug-selling turf. Too much violence on television and in computer games, re-enacted on the streets.

Hunger for respect and a fear that any sign of weakness will be fatal. Anger at the absence of fathers. Gangs or drug dealers stepping into the gap, offering a sense of belonging, and an outlet for the anger. Profound alienation from life's creative, uplifting and enriching possibilities. All of the above.

There may be something to all of these theories. But I would add another: Not enough Scheherazade.

The thought came to me recently during a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert. This splendid Baltimore institution was performing works by Gustav Mahler, John Adams and the Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Would it be possible, I wondered, for anyone to take a life after hearing the sublime melodies of Scheherazade and the violin mastery of BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney?

Wouldn't young people be eager to conjure with Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship" and the other three movements?

I fear some reader is thinking: "Smith, you are a fool or a hopeless romantic. Killers do not listen to classical music." That's my point, actually. People who listen to classical music do not turn out to be killers. All right, some may, but I am guessing they are few. And how can we know what effect classical music and the arts might have if made available early? That aspect - early exposure - would be the key, I think. Once the die of neglect has been cast, it must surely be difficult to reverse.

So, a romantic? Maybe. But I'm not the only one.

A day before last week's concert at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the BSO's new conductor, Marin Alsop, was announcing a program she hopes to begin with the help of the orchestra's players. If they will take on a new Baltimore student for free, she will find money to buy the student an instrument.

What we have in the Alsop challenge is an affirmation of life's possibility and potential. Young people need someone who believes in them - someone who encourages them and who can teach them life lessons, lessons such as: I can learn. There are no instant Jonathan Carneys, no instant virtuosi, but I can start. I can learn the value of practice and study, the thrill of meeting the expectations of people who see something valuable in me. I can be inspired to listen carefully and play well.

Others have been on this track for some time. The Baltimore school system's chief academic officer, Linda Chinnia, says the arts are now being presented in Baltimore along with reading and writing so they appear not as add-ons, but as aspects of learning and life. Ms. Chinnia says the schools found partners in several city art and music institutions. Busloads of schoolchildren were taken to a Baltimore Opera Company rehearsal of Tosca recently and sat transfixed by the pageantry.

"The lessons are much more powerful when students can see performances. We are offering enrichment and improving the quality of life," she said. What we have in the schools and Maestra Alsop is leadership and a willingness to take risks. There is far too little of both in public life today. Every potential initiative, it seems, has to be screened and vetted until there is nothing left but the dry husk of a once-promising inspiration.

Ms. Alsop didn't offer her musical mentoring plan as an antidote for guns and drugs and killing. But if there are answers, they will come incrementally, in steps each of us can take with whatever resources we have.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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