Growing up on a kibbutz leaves an impression. Just ask cellist Amit Peled, who spent his childhood in one of the Israeli collectives where wealth is shared among households.
Despite having spent the vast majority of his adulthood outside of Israel — while distinguishing himself as an internationally celebrated soloist and educator — Peled remains fiercely committed to the idea of music as a public right, as something that belongs to everyone.
His latest project, dubbed the Mount Vernon Virtuosi, is perhaps the clearest expression of this value.
Launched in 2018, the Virtuosi are a collective of young professional string players — primarily recent graduates from Maryland-area music schools. Headed by Peled, who’s taught cello at the Peabody Institute since 2003, they perform four programs around the state per concert season. That, by itself, is nothing particularly special — except that all their concerts are free, even while the musicians receive competitive pay.
For Peled, these dual missions are non-negotiable.
“There are two reasons why I founded the group,” he explained. “One is to try to keep the extraordinary young musicians that we teach in Maryland music colleges, in Maryland. From a selfish point of view, I want our communities to enjoy this level of playing. The second reason is I’ve always believed classical music should be free of charge for the public.”
So far, the plan seems to be working. The Virtuosi are primarily funded through gifts from private donors, many of whom, according to Peled, don’t even live in Maryland, but rather believe in his vision. That financial backing provides a strong incentive to Virtuosi members to stay local.
An example is Bronwyn Lee, who grew up in rural Alberta, Canada, and came to Baltimore to study viola performance at Peabody. She’s been with the Virtuosi since their start. At the time, she was a junior, but has since stayed on, even after graduating in 2019.
Now, she’s managing a career as a freelancing performer and teacher. “The goal is to stay in Baltimore,” Lee said. “MVV has definitely been part of that decision because it’s such a great opportunity.”
But Peled’s mission also resonated with Lee. She recalled her own early experiences with music-making: a guitarist father who put on barn dances for their community and took his family to perform at public halls and elder care facilities.
“He really showed me the importance of bringing people together and creating life in a community,” she said.
Moreover, Baltimore itself compelled Lee to stay. “When I first came here, I had never been confronted with the kind of poverty that’s here. It was really hard to process,” she said. But it got her “fired up” to be more involved.
That speaks directly to the larger vision for the Virtuosi: It doesn’t stop at four free programs a year.
Amit Peled is, after all, someone who thinks big. This is the man who, upon being loaned Pablo Casals’ cello, was not content simply to play it from time to time; instead, he resurrected the trailblazing cellist’s original programs and retraced Casals’ tours through American small towns.
Peled wants the Virtuosi to grow into a permanent post-graduate residency, physically installed in Baltimore and immersed in its communities.
“I want a lot, preferably an old church or something, ruined and [located] in the slums of Baltimore,” Peled said. “And I want to renovate it.”
“The whole thing is in my head,” he continued. He imagines a stage in the middle, like Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, surrounded by balconies and rooms that would house the resident musicians.
“When you live there, you would not have to care about food, lodging — everything is taken care of for two years. But you’re mine. One week out of the month, you’re my worker, which means I take you everywhere — jails, hospitals, you name it, and it’s free.”
Peled acknowledged that playing for, and teaching in, communities that might not have ready access to high-quality classical music is hardly a new idea, but he’s critical of the self-congratulatory aura that often hangs around this kind of work.
“I’ve done it all over the country — what we call outreach,” he said. “But the outreach we do is really to make us feel good. You go in, you play, you see how terrible it is because there’s no funding. Then you go out. It’s not changing anything.”
The Mount Vernon Virtuosi, he believes, could provide an alternative model. “I don’t want to force musicians to live here forever,” Peled clarified. What he does want is “to create better musical citizens. So that when they leave MVV in Baltimore, they will use classical music to engage with the community they live in.”
In the meantime, the group’s inclusive ethic underscores the atmosphere of their concerts. Peled recalled performing a Halloween program in the lobby of the Enoch Pratt library earlier this year. The concert took place during a weekday lunch hour, with people floating in and out of the building.
“Somebody came in to make a phone call from a computer. Policemen came in and out. I loved it. There was noise, there was an alarm. I didn’t even hear it, we were so engaged in that concert. That’s exactly what I envisioned for us.”
Those who’d like to hear the Mount Vernon Virtuosi for themselves don’t have to wait long: The group will tour a holiday program to Baltimore, Silver Spring and Rockville from Dec. 10-12. You can learn more at mountvernonvirtuosi.com.
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 email@example.com.