One by one, people rose to their feet Wednesday and placed their hands over their hearts as musicians for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra began to play the first strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The audience of nearly a thousand people began to sing along at the free, outdoor concert for peace. At first their voices were soft: “What so proudly we hailed…” they sang in a near-murmur.
Gradually, the volume grew louder until the refrain rang out: “O’er the land of the free,” the crowd sang, “and the home of the brave.”
It was an emotional moment that expressed the love that both the musicians and their listeners feel for their nation, and by extension for the city in which the symphony is located.
And it was just one of the ways that Baltimore’s arts groups are reaching out to an anxious and bewildered public in response to the looting and riots that erupted one week after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in police custody.
Those responses include free performances and admissions, a fundraising drive to benefit at-risk youth, and a trio of cultural groups who banded together with local restaurants to provide lunch and arts activities to Baltimore City public school students on Monday, when schools were closed.
“We will always be here for you,” the orchestra’s music director, Marin Alsop, told the crowd gathered outside Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Though Alsop was referring specifically to the orchestra she leads, she could have been speaking for any number of Baltimore’s theater troupes, music groups, painters and sculptors.
For example, Gallery 788 in Hampden posted instructions on its Facebook page about how to participate in a silent auction that will be held on May 8.
“In light of the protests and riots around the city this April,” the group wrote, “Baltimore artists are donating 100 percent of the proceeds from the sales of their work to support community centers that serve our most at-risk youth.
In Station North, the Contemporary arts organization teamed up with Area 405, an artists’ collective, and the Baltimore Design School to feed lunch Tuesday to about three dozen students who ranged in age from toddlers through teens.
The kids had been left without a way to occupy their time after city schools closed abruptly after a wave of looting and vandalism erupted Monday.
Local restaurant Joe Squared donated pizza, and Bottega Italian restaurant supplied sandwiches while a local resident dropped by with gallons of homemade chicken-rice soup.
In addition to lunch, about three dozen toddlers, elementary pupils and teens took part in crafts and watched movies under the watchful gaze of the organizations’ staffs.
“We feel awful about what’s happened,” Deana Haggag, the Contemporary’s executive director said. “We know the Design School. We know these kids. We knew we could offer them someplace to go. It was kind of a no-brainer.”
Some arts groups concluded that the best way they can serve is by channeling the transformative power of art.
The Chesapeake Shakespeare Theatre canceled evening performances of “Romeo and Juliet” for Thursday through Saturday in response to the 10 p.m. curfew citywide that is expected to last at least through Monday.
But, the group plans to perform up to a dozen school matinees in the next two weeks.
More than 2,000 students are expected to watch William Shakespeare’s 500-year-old play about the tragic cost of urban violence. In addition, Malin said, the organization had previously obtained funding to allow Baltimore City public schools to attend for free.
“Our actors are champing at the bit to get up on stage and perform for these students,” Malin said.” There’s never been a moment when it’s more timely to put on a play about civic unrest and the need for peaceful streets.”
The Baltimore Museum of Industry is offering free admission through Sunday in the hopes of reminding city residents and visitors of the city’s underlying strength.
“Baltimore is open for business and so is the BMI,” Claire Mullins, the group’s marketing director, wrote in an email. “We invite everyone to come see how great our city is and how much we have to offer.”
Megan Wills never thought about canceling the five-day Charm City Comedy Festival that opened Wednesday, though the curfew forced her to ax 16 of its 35 planned shows at the last minute. No shows will start after 8 p.m., she said.
“We had 350 performers coming to Baltimore from all over,” Wills said. “Some of them had non-refundable tickets. We rescheduled as many as we can. We hope people will come out to the earlier shows, because we think laughter is what this city needs right now.”
But try as they might, some organizations had no choice but to cancel or postpone planned activities.
Two of the city’s signature spring events — the FlowerMart in Mount Vernon Square and the Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race at the American Visionary Art Museum — scrapped plans to entertain visitors this weekend.
This is the first time in the FlowerMart’s 104-year history that the traditional Baltimore rite of spring has been postponed. John Valenti, Jr., vice-president of the FlowerMart’s board of directors, cited “the need to safeguard for the safety of the citizens of Baltimore and the police.”
Officials for both events hope to reschedule, but no specific date has been set.
The Maryland State Boychoir canceled its benefit concert scheduled for Sunday afternoon in response to safety concerns.
The Charles and Senator Theatres will drop their final film showing of each evening to comply with city regulations, according to Kathleen Cusack, who co-owns the theaters with her father, James “Buzz’ Cusack.
“The cancellations on the weekends are what will kill us,” Kathleen Cusack said. “We depend on them for survival. But, public safety comes first.”
Some theater troupes moved up their evening shows to accommodate the curfew:
At Everyman Theatre, performances of Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts” will begin nightly at 7 instead of 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m., according to artistic director Vincent Lancisi. The Theatre Project has bumped up its Saturday night performance of [re]wired by one hour, to 7 p.m. In addition, Spotlighters theatre has rescheduled its Friday performance of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” to 7 p.m. and its Saturday performance to 2 p.m.
Officials at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall postponed Friday’s planned performance of “Pokemon: Symphonic Evolutions.” That concert instead will take place on July 1. All other concerts planned for the week will take place as scheduled.
That’s why Wednesday’s impromptu performance was so important to city residents like Ilise Marrazzo, who attended the concert with her 4-year-old daughter, Juliana Valdez.
Marrazzo said the event was a welcome respite from the conversation she’d had two days earlier with her husband about whether they should leave their home in Patterson Park. It was a respite from having to explain to her 7-year-old daughter, Amelia, as they drove through the Inner Harbor, why members of the National Guard were carrying guns.
Gathering with likeminded people who love music and love Baltimore reminded Marrazzo that she can be part of a powerful force for good in the city.
“It makes me feel,” she said, “that we’re going to be OK”
Baltimore Sun reporters Tim Smith and Chris Kaltenbach and Larry Perl of the Baltimore Sun Media Group contributed to this article.