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Why 'Rusty Musicians' and other outreach projects matter

A couple of images have stayed with me since the "Rusty Musicians" event offered by the Baltimore Symphony the other night at Meyerhoff Hall:

Phil Munds, the orchestra's first-rate principal horn player, sharing the daunting solo in the finale of Stravinsky's "Firebird" with his "rusty" stand-mate and giving her a hearty pat on the back when they were through it; BSO principal percussionist Chris Williams keeping a close eye on the "rusty" timpanist, helping him with cues and giving a thumbs up after a big, forceful moment in Brahms' "Academic Festival" Overture.

That's what this unusual project is all about -- inspiring amateur players to take a stab at playing onstage with the pros, and encouraging the pros to reach out and encourage them. (If you missed it, you might want to see my story about the "Rusty Musicians" at Meyerhoff; you'll find a photo gallery and video, too.)  

This is not what musicians sign on to when they join a big-time orchestra; they expect to be spending their time in the oh-so-professional realm of high art. They might do some teaching, and, yes, they'll usually go along with some annual side-by-side performance with local students, in the sacred name of education (and the grants that can generate). But four hours of sitting with "rusty musicians"? Or spending a whole week doing that sort of thing and much more during a summer camp for amateurs? Isn't that, well, demeaning, or, at the very least, distracting?

I have heard a couple BSO players suggest that

Rusty Musicians and the BSO Academy (it debuted last June), cornerstones of music director Marin Alsop's tenure so far, are certainly worthy, but have the danger of causing the orchestra to shift its primary, essential focus on achieving and maintaining the finest artistic quality. I wouldn't be surprised if a fair number of BSO musicians share that concern, but I also suspect that most have come to embrace the point of trying fresh ways to connect with more and more folks in the community.

Orchestra industry studies have indicated that a considerable majority of audiences for classical concerts have studied an instrument at some point. Maybe they haven't played in years; maybe they're members of community bands or amateur chamber ensembles. Whatever the case, maybe they'd just love to see, hear and feel what it's like to be onstage with a major orchestra, if only once in their lives. And maybe that experience will make them care more about music-making and music-makers than they had before. And maybe their families and friends will pick up on that re-charged enthusiasm. A pretty cool scenario, I'd say, and not really far-fetched.

All the angst over the audiences classical music doesn't reach should not keep orchestras from trying to fire up the audiences classical music has. (If you said the same thing about newspapers and their readers, I'd be inclined to agree with you, but wouldn't dare say so here.)

In my usual skeptical way, I would have thought that only 45 minutes onstage with Alsop zipping through a little Brahms and Stravinsky might be more frustrating than satisfying. But one look at the faces on the "rusties" pouring into the green room at the Meyerhoff after the first session spoke volumes -- I'm talking super-smiling faces, the kind of cheeriness that, if harnessed, could power the night lights at Camden Yards. (With more than 250 amateurs turning out for the event, they were divided into four groups; the ensemble for each session with Alsop was about 60 percent rusties, 40 percent BSO players.)

It's such a simple idea, really, this get-out-your-old-instruments-and-jam-with-us offer. And so uplifting. It's precisely the kind of thing that more and more professional orchestras will need to consider doing if they want to be -- in the catchword of the arts world today -- relevant.


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