A big stage for a small orchestra

Marin Alsop and the BSO put young pupils in spotlight as part of their OrchKids program

March 30, 2011|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

When 9-year-old Andre Palmer and 119 of his classmates at Lockerman Bundy Elementary School file out of the wings of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall tonight and again on Sunday, it won't look like just an ordinary concert.

Chances are that some of the musicians' shoelaces will be untied, as they were during a Tuesday afternoon rehearsal. Andre and the other pint-sized performers playing the cellos and double basses will have to raise their arms above their heads to avoid dragging their extra-large instruments across the stage floor.

And when Marin Alsop mounts the podium to conduct the kids, she will bend over nearly double to direct her signals to musicians who stand no higher than her waist.

The children, the oldest of whom are in the third grade, will perform on stage alongside the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for about 10 minutes. But during that brief period, the youngsters will be helping Alsop and OrchKids program director Dan Trahey rethink the relationship between classical orchestras and their audiences.

For possibly the first time in this country, children are being integrated into the regular subscription series of a major symphony orchestra. They will play not just for proud parents, but for a general audience paying the full ticket price.

"Most kids are always relegated to family concerts unless they're super-prodigy soloists," Alsop says.

"But it's important for our audiences to see what we're doing with these kids. It's a musically valid extension of what the BSO does, and it's representative of our commitment to embracing every segment of our community."

The concert will include Prokofiev's "Cinderella Suite" performed by the orchestra. John Corigliano's "Pied Piper Fantasy" will feature principal flute Emily Skala and 17 middle-school students from the Peabody Preparatory Flute and Drum Ensemble. The OrchKids and the BSO will join forces for the world premiere of "OrchKids Nation," a piece composed for the young musicians by David Rimelis.

"This concert represents a new way of thinking about music in America," Trahey says. "We're saying that there aren't hard divisions between playing an instrument in a school auditorium or at the Meyerhoff or at Carnegie Hall.

"In this country, we have either great artists or great pedagogues. But, what we need are artists who are pedagogues, and most of all, who are advocates for the music. Our audience isn't just made up of all the people who hear us play. It's made up of all the people who never hear us play."

But as Rimelis can attest, it's no simple feat to craft an orchestral piece that can be played by rank beginners and the slightly more experienced. Nor is it easy to compose a score that is equally playable by first-year violin and trumpet players.

"There's a reason they don't have a lot of orchestras for first-year music students," Rimelis says.

"Beginning horns and beginning strings start out playing in different keys. The strings play sharp, and the horns love flats. But, two notes — the D and the G — are common in both keys. So in my piece, the audience will be hearing a lot of these notes."

OrchKids was founded in 2008, in part with $100,000 in seed money that Alsop received after winning a MacArthur Foundation grant. The program is modeled on el Sistema, a nationwide initiative that over the years has provided music instruction to hundreds of thousands of mostly poor kids in Venezuela.

Baltimore's version uses professional musicians from the BSO and the Peabody Institute to provide music instruction four days a week after school to pupils in the Lockerman Bundy and the New Song Academy, both of which are located in economically depressed neighborhoods.

Now the oldest pupils are in the third grade, but a new grade is being added to OrchKids each year. Eventually, the program will include instrumentalists and singers in kindergarten through their senior year in high school.

Itysha McDaniels, 11, can't wait until tonight, when she will finally get a chance to blow her own horn.

"What I like about the trumpet," says the third-grader, "is that you can play all these notes with just three valves."

There's even a chance that Itysha will get to Carnegie Hall. In a few years, Alsop hopes to take the OrchKids to perform there. But first, as the joke goes, she'll have to practice, practice, practice.

"I'm sure that Carnegie Hall is going to be in our future," Alsop says. A European tour also is a possibility.

"When you see these children, it's hard not to feel great pride. They're so poised and self-assured, and I'm just so impressed with them. I can't say it's all due to the OrchKids program, but a lot of it is."

Baltimore has two other programs that cater to elementary school instrumentalists. But, unlike the Peabody or TWIGS, which operated through the Baltimore School for the Arts, OrchKids instructors don't care whether their pupils possess natural gifts in rhythm or pitch.

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