BSO director says violence was necessary to spark social change in Baltimore

Baltimore's violence was a wakeup call on persistent issues, says BSO director Marin Alsop

In an interview with BBC News broadcast this week, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra director Marin Alsop suggested the riots the city saw in April may have been the only action that could have sparked real social change in Baltimore.

During a discussion that touched on her experience as a female conductor and her work in Baltimore, Alsop was asked about the OrchKids program she founded, which provides music education opportunities for children in the city. Alsop noted that the program sets a high bar, and the kids “never disappoint.”

That was surprising, said BBC reporter Razia Iqbal, given depictions of Baltimore in shows like “The Wire” and “news bulletins of young African-American men being gunned down by the state.” She asked how Alsop reconciles those images in her mind.

“It’s heartbreaking that we haven’t dealt with these issues, that it requires violence, which I think it does require, to be honest, to change this equation,” Alsop told Iqbal. “Inequality and injustice is unacceptable. Sadly, this has been the most violent year in Baltimore. We’ve had over 300 people murdered. It’s a cry for help.”

Alsop expounded on that statement in an interview with The Sun, and said she was trying to explain how the riots following Freddie Gray's police-custody death came to transpire.

"I'm not condoning violence, of course not, but I’m trying to give some perspective to a journalist in London,” Alsop said.

She said the violence that Baltimore experienced last spring was a starting point for healing. Baltimore's black community reached a boiling point after decades of police brutality and racial inequality persisted.

"When people don’t respond to each other, yet the conditions continue – how do you finally get someone's attention? It’s by grabbing them by the shoulders,” she said. "That's what happened."

Paul Meecham, the orchestra's CEO, said neither he nor Alsop condone the violence that erupted, but he backed her up.

"I think she was just saying she understands how it got to that point. ... It was years and years of repressed feelings," Meecham said. "I took her comments in that context: While I don’t condone it, it’s understandable.”

"I think we’re very fortunate to have a director who is not just an artistic leader but a community leader, I think not every town has that,” Meecham added. "She is one of Baltimore's champions and there aren’t enough of them.”

Asked about Alsop's statement to the BBC, the mayor's office, Baltimore City Police Department and Maryland Department of Education, which provides funding for BSO programs, declined to comment.

BGE, a corporate sponsor, expressed its intent to continue supporting educational projects such as OrchKids. 

“We think it is important to shine a light on the positive work being done in Baltimore, such as the BSO's outreach program and other initiatives that provide young people with access to the arts and opportunities to develop their potential and skills,” Valencia A. McClure, BGE’s communications and corporate relations director, said in a statement. “This is something we believe in and will continue to support at BGE."

Alsop follows in the footsteps of her "hero" and mentor, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, whose influence she also discussed with Iqbal.

"Not only did he share his thoughts about music, he stood up for everything he believed in. He was there when the Berlin Wall came down, he was there conducting Beethoven Nine with musicians from around the world," she told the BBC. "He understood that music could be a vehicle for people to connect.”

The BSO did its own part to respond to Baltimore's riots immediately after they occured. Within 36 hours, the orchestra was putting on a concert for peace at the epicenter of the unrest near Mondawmin Mall.

OrchKids is part of the BSO’s ongoing comittment to improve music education opportunities for Baltimore’s disadvantaged youth. The program has grown from 30 kids at one school in 2008 to 1,100 students across six schools.

Through OrchKids, Alsop wants to change the picture for minority children, who she said often aren't afforded the same opportunities as many of their white counterparts, particularly when it comes to music. Those disparities are evident even in the BSO, where there's one black musician.

"Symphonic music is associated with people who have, not with people who don’t have," Alsop said. "I believe that it’s unfair. I don’t want to really be part of something that’s unfair, so I’m trying to equalize the playing field.”

She'd like to see the program grow to reach 10,000 kids. The BSO is currently commissioning a report from consultants to see just how large they can expect to feasibly grow OrchKids, and Meecham expects those results to come back in March. 

Meecham acknowledged the complexity and the depth of social and racial inequality in Baltimore. He said in its own small way, the BSO is trying to combat those problems. 

"As a cultural civic leader, our role here we see very much as trying to bring people together and trying to support some of the societal challenges that the city faces, and obviously the OrchKids program is a sign of that,” he said.

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