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At the BSO Academy, an adult fantasy camp for classical music nerds, amateurs play alongside the pros

The performance will begin something like this: The “A” note of an oboe will sound out on stage at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, signaling the combined energies of a 100-piece orchestra to spring to life like a great jungle cat.

The violins and violas and cellos will be tuned to the oboe’s “A,” as will the English horns and trumpets and flutes. Then, all at once, they will go silent, gathering into a soundless crouch as they wait for conductor Jonathan Taylor Rush to raise his baton and unleash them.

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This year marks the first time since 2018 that the BSO Academy — essentially an adult fantasy camp for classical music nerds — has held its weeklong series of workshops, lessons, lectures and rehearsals, during which 76 amateur musicians perform alongside professionals from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The program culminates this weekend in a pair of free public concerts, one Friday and one Saturday.

During a recent visit to the Meyerhoff, every nook and cranny of the cavernous building (including the men’s locker room) seemed to contain a string quartet or violin trio working on a different piece of music.

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For Christine Scott, 72, the academy was a chance to submerge herself, however briefly, in a profession that had little room for women or Black musicians when she was growing up.

Her dreams of a career performing as an oboist with a major symphony orchestra were nourished at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the prestigious New York institution that inspired the 1980 film, “Fame.” She graduated in 1967 and was beginning to prepare for auditions when she was forced to confront some grim statistics.

“My teacher pointed out that I should look at all the professional orchestras and ask myself how many women were playing in them,” Scott said. “He said I should also ask myself how many African Americans were playing in them. He said that if I wanted to give it a try, he would support me all the way, but those were the realities of the time.”

Scott put down her oboe and didn’t pick it up again for 45 years.

“Playing here is an emotional experience for me,” said Scott, now a retired educator from Dobbs Ferry, New York. “Some people meditate. I play the oboe. When I started making my own reeds and playing again, I found a place that I had lost a long time ago.”

The BSO wasn’t the first U.S. orchestra to host such a “pro-am” event. Orchestras from Minnesota to New York to Virginia have had similar concerts and rehearsals on their rosters in recent years. But from its beginning more than a decade ago, the BSO Academy offered what arguably was the most intensive and comprehensive experience, running for a full eight days instead of the more typical one to five. (In addition to the academy, the BSO mounts a one-night “Rusty Musicians” concert during the winter holidays that also features a mix of amateurs and pros.)

Nor is the repertoire at the BSO Academy dumbed down for the lay musicians, who tackle some of the most challenging works in the classical canon: parts of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 9,″ “Jupiter” from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and Antonin Dvorak’s ”Scherzo Capriccioso.”

“We open up our sacred space and share what we do with airline pilots, computer programmers, immigration lawyers and rocket scientists who have such a passion for orchestral music that all these years later, they are still playing their instruments,” said Jane Marvine, the BSO musician who devised the academy in 2009 with the orchestra’s former music director, Marin Alsop.

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“Over the years, participants have told us that the academy has been a transformational experience for them,” Marvine said. “It validates something in their souls.”

Some pro-am orchestral programs in other cities restrict their applicant pools to specific groups, such as students. The BSO Academy accepts any grown-up who can read music and, as Marvine put it, “can play well enough to stay out of the way.” There are no auditions; musical parts (including solos) are assigned to participants in advance.

She’s relieved the academy is back after a three-year hiatus. The 2019 camp was canceled after a financial crisis caused the musicians to be locked out of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for three months. And the pandemic halted all in-person events during the summers of 2020 and 2021.

Organizers were unsure how many musicians would return this year. But the drop-off, if any, has been minimal. Residents of 19 states participated in the 2022 academy, though a musician from Hawaii had to cancel at the last minute because of ill health.

“People come back to the academy year after year,” said Christine Murphy, the BSO’s assistant principal flutist. “I’m really touched at how much it means to them.”

Murphy, 28, is at the beginning of her career, and the academy allows her to get to know other members of her tribe.

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She’s read the news articles documenting declines in the size of symphony audiences, the gloomy prognostications that classical music is an art form on life support.

But many academy participants subscribe to concert series in their hometowns. They have a bone-deep understanding of the difficulties of performing particular musical passages. They pick up on a musician’s shifts in interpretation and respond to them. By their very existence, academy attendees reassure Murphy that the art form she loves still has a future.

“Listening to stories about people’s love affairs with their instruments has been eye-opening,” she said. “It’s really encouraging to know that there’s so much passion still for classical music right here in Baltimore.”

The academy isn’t cheap. The chamber music program costs $650, while the orchestral program has a $1,700 fee, and that doesn’t include meals or a hotel room. Some attendees enroll in both programs. Marvine said discounted rates are available for music lovers who can’t afford the full tuition.

For the 41 BSO musicians participating this year, the academy can be oddly liberating by allowing them to temporarily relinquish the perfectionism that has dominated their careers. They can allow themselves to enjoy even a flawed performance full of skipped notes and late entrances, but still contains moments of beauty.

“For this one week,” Marvine said, “we put our judgments aside.”

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During a recent rehearsal of the Shostakovich, the orchestra was at full throttle. Conductor Rush extended one arm and held up his index finger. Little by little, the music began to fade away. The dying sound was so haunting it sent shivers up an observer’s spine.

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Christina Vermeulen, 58, arrived at the academy worried that she wouldn’t meet her teachers’ expectations. Instead, she learned to disarm her internal taskmaster. Vermeulen played the flute seriously through high school, but stopped when she realized that she wasn’t talented enough to play professionally.

It would be nearly four decades before the suburban Chicago woman picked up the instrument again because she wanted to play duets with her 22-year-old daughter, who is performing this summer at Colorado’s National Repertory Orchestra and plans on a professional career.

Vermuelen thinks her daughter might have that little extra helping of talent that she herself lacks. That makes her a tiny bit jealous, she said, but mostly, enormously proud. She said her week at the academy has reminded her that the arts exist to serve people, not the other way around.

“I realized that I don’t have to be perfect in order to play the flute,” she said. “I don’t have to be great. This is just for me to learn, to experience being around wonderful, like-minded people who are passionate about the same things I am.

“Being able to sit on stage with this orchestra has been a life-changing moment.”

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Assistant BSO Conductor Jonathan Taylor Rush will conduct the BSO Academy’s orchestral program in a free concert at 7 p.m. Friday at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. And at 7 p.m. Saturday, BSO musicians will conduct members of the Academy’s chamber music program at a free concert at the Meyerhoff.


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