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BSO bassist Jonathan Jensen accompanies Baltimore Choral Arts Society singers in performing his song "34th Street" at the Hampden street that inspired it.

Bob Hosier would like to put a few rumors about Hampden’s Miracle on 34th Street, where he lives, to rest: No, BGE does not help out with residents’ electric bills; no, you do not have to sign an agreement promising to participate in the holiday light display if you buy a house on the block.

“We just do what we do. They’re just Christmas lights,” Hosier insisted in an interview. “Whether all these people showed up or not, we’d still do it.”

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Still, “just Christmas lights” is a bit of an understatement. Hosier claimed that he and his wife Darlene have enough holiday decorations to blanket five houses top-to-bottom — and they’re happy to share. When the cold weather sets in, those decorations can be seen creeping across the rowhomes of the 700 block of West 34th Street, supplemented by neighbors’ own, now-iconic contributions: a tree made of hubcaps, glowing dreidels, a shrine to Natty Boh.

By their official lighting the day after Thanksgiving, the result is an outrageous display of light, music and color that regularly attracts thousands of sightseers to the Hampden block.

“I’ve had governors on my porch and mayors. And now,” Hosier said, gesturing past a sea of blow-up Santas and plastic reindeer, “I have the BSO. Can’t get any better than this.”

BSO bassist Jonathan Jensen, left, accompanies Baltimore Choral Arts Society singers in performing his song "34th Street" at the Hampden street that inspired it. The song will have its world premier in the up-coming BSO's Holiday Spectacular concert Dec 21.
BSO bassist Jonathan Jensen, left, accompanies Baltimore Choral Arts Society singers in performing his song "34th Street" at the Hampden street that inspired it. The song will have its world premier in the up-coming BSO's Holiday Spectacular concert Dec 21. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Hosier was referring to Jonathan Jensen, double bassist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, tucked onto Hosier’s porch amidst a menagerie of Santas and Christmas dolls. Tonight, Jensen had left his bass at home, in favor of an electric piano that accompanied a quartet of singers from the Baltimore Choral Arts Society.

Arranged on the porch stairs, they serenaded the 34th Street sightseers — but not with any old Christmas carol. They were singing an original composition by Jensen, a ragtime-esque ode to the Hampden light display and the off-the-wall Baltimore artistry it exemplifies.

Much like the Hosiers’ holiday decorations, Jensen’s song has taken on a life of its own. On December 21, “34th Street” will be performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as part of the orchestra’s annual musical variety show, the Holiday Spectacular.

“It’s a dream come true for me,” Jensen said. The song has been adapted for a full orchestra and will be sung by the Holiday’s Spectacular acclaimed Broadway music director Andy Einhorn and American Idol singer (and Catonsville native) Jeremy Lloyd Harmon.

It was another conductor, Jack Everly, that planted the seed of inspiration in Jensen’s head — all the way back in the mid-2000s, when Everly adapted the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s annual Yuletide Celebration for the BSO. (Everly is the principal pops conductor of both orchestras.)

“Early on I thought we should have something in this show that reflected our local customs,” Jensen said. “Obviously 34th Street was the first thing I thought of.”

Jensen doesn’t live in Hampden himself, but visiting the annual display had become such a tradition that he couldn’t remember his first time seeing it.

“It kind of blurs together,” he said. “There’s something different every year.” When writing the song, he “immersed [himself] in the atmosphere,” and many of the details about the display ended up in his lyrics, from the calls of vendors selling hot chocolate on the corner to the use of the Baltimore endearment “hon.”

For Jensen, the neighborly collaboration that the display requires is “part of what makes it inspiring. That they would go to all this trouble … to bring joy to the city.” That, and the proud kitsch of some of the displays exemplifies “a certain quirkiness about Baltimore that’s always there despite the headlines in the news that are not so positive. It’s so over-the-top, and that’s the point of it.”

Just as the 34th Street display highlights the sometimes otherwise overlooked creativity of the city, the premiere of Jensen’s song honors his other, non-orchestral musical lives: Jensen is also a member of the Baltimore Mandolin Quartet and regularly performs at contradances around the city. Nor is this the first time Jensen’s taken local inspiration for his songs: He’s written pieces honoring the city’s tall ships, both the original Pride of Baltimore and the Pride II, and composed a musical about the late Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer.

Still, despite penning “34th Street” around 2006, performing it many times for friends and colleagues, and posting a version on YouTube, Jensen said that the BSO’s performance will mark “the official world premiere of the song in any public kind of way.”

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The BSO’s Holiday Spectacular will also feature return appearances by tap-dancing Santas, an audience singalong with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and a few surprise guest artists.

If you go:

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gives two performances of their Holiday Spectacular on December 21 at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, one at 3:00 and another at 8:00. Tickets start at $17.50.

Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for The Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions. Nonemaker can be reached at nonemakerwrites@gmail.com.

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