'Rusty' musicians tune up with BSO

Baltimore Symphony gives amateurs spotlight at Meyerhoff Hall

  • Tanesha Mitchell, right, of Baltimore, talks with BSO violinist Greg Mulligan, left, during the first session of BSO's Baltimore "Rusty Musicians" program.
Tanesha Mitchell, right, of Baltimore, talks with BSO violinist… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
September 21, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Keyone Swaine walked off the stage of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Tuesday night a humbled man.

Earlier in the day, he got off work from his job at the Social Security Administration, picked up his trombone and carried it into the home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. An amateur musician, Swaine paid $10 for what he expected would be a "surreal" evening performing with some of the top players in the world.

"It was a life-changing experience, very humbling," said Swaine, 29, after spending 45 minutes playing Brahms and Stravinsky alongside BSO regulars. "To be sitting right there with the professionals, you can't ask for anything more."

Swaine was one of more than 250 amateur instrumentalists selected to play with orchestra members under the baton of music director Marin Alsop. The initiative, known as Rusty Musicians, is part of an effort to bring the BSO experience into as many lives as possible.

"Our goal," Alsop said last night as she grabbed a snack between sessions, "is to reach out and embrace as many people as we can in the sense of inclusion in the joy of music-making. It's part of our big philosophy, making music a more relevant part of people's lives."

Based on the broad smiles on the faces of the amateur players as they left the stage, the mission was well-realized Tuesday.

"The environment was electric," said Tanesha Mitchell, a 35-year-old self-described "full-time mom" from Baltimore who has played violin since she was a girl. "I was so caught up in the moment that I lost my place a couple times."

There were some, well, rusty spots of articulation or rhythm as Alsop guided the combined forces in works by Brahms and Stravinsky during Tuesday's first session. But the occasional imprecision — "Oops," the conductor said good-naturedly after one unmistakably premature entrance — was swept away by the enthusiasm of the music-making.

"Marin was excellent," Swain said afterward. "I learned a lot from her even in that short time. And [BSO trombonist] John Vance gave me a lot of pointers."

Born and raised in East Baltimore, Swain, 29, didn't pick up the trombone until he was 17, somewhat late for learning an instrument. But he kept at it even after deciding to major in finance in college, and he plays in a community group called the Columbia Concert Band.

Another amateur picking up useful technical tips was Dr. Harry Kaplan, a New York-born internist with a practice in Baltimore and a longtime bassoonist. "It was absolutely thrilling to be playing on that stage and have a sound like that surrounding you," he said. "And if I got lost, the [BSO players] were right there to carry me back."

The doctor and his wife are BSO subscribers. When he received an e-mail from the orchestra a few months ago alerting him to the Rusty Musicians night, "I thought, boy, this looks like a blast," Kaplan, 46, said. "It was a great excuse to get the instrument out again. I played bassoon through college and graduate school. It was a tremendous source of enjoyment for me. But I haven't touched the bassoon in five years."

Reconnection is the main concept behind Rusty Musicians and the BSO Academy, a weeklong camp for amateurs that debuted last June. "I'm trying to bribe my wife to let me go to the academy next summer," Kaplan said.

The BSO's first Rusty Musicians event was held last winter at the orchestra's second home, the Music Center at Strathmore in Montgomery County. That one drew more than 400 amateurs and was spread over two nights to accommodate all of them. More than 450 musicians applied for last night's session, and more than half were accepted. The "rusties," as the players are affectionately known by the professionals, were divided into four groups receiving 45 minutes of stage time each.

Mitchell, the violinist, is a product of a public school music education. She started studying violin at the age of 7 with a teacher at Magnolia Elementary in Joppatown. "My family couldn't afford private lessons," she said. She kept up the violin, but chose in college to pursue a degree in elementary education.

"I never had the chance to go into the professional musician realm," said Mitchell, who moved from Harford County to Baltimore about a decade ago. She has continued to seek musical outlets; she has played in the Columbia Orchestra for the past four years.

Performing side by side with BSO musicians at the Meyerhoff on Tuesday fulfilled "some really neat fantasies," Mitchell said. "I really appreciate this opportunity. This is the icing on the cake. I wouldn't mind playing here all the time."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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