In 1875, a Baltimore railroad businessman commissioned a waltz from a Russian composer to honor his dying sister. She died before hearing it, and the song was never performed publicly — until Sunday at Loch Raven High School.
Paul Belz, 71, of Lutherville, who wrote a self-published novel about the railroad man, Thomas Winans, said he discovered the waltz while doing research for his book in the Library of Congress.
He passed on the song to the Baltimore Philharmonia Orchestra, a volunteer orchestra based in Towson. At its concert Sunday night, pianist Lorraine Min performed the song’s world premiere, its first performance since it was written more than 100 years ago.
The concert charged no admission as part of the orchestra’s mission to get people interested in the music it plays, said Baltimore Philharmonia executive director Phil Ravita, of Towson.
“We want to keep it accessible to the entire public, to the community we serve,” Ravita said. “We want to bring this music and keep it alive to the community.”
Everything the Baltimore Philharmonia Orchestra does is designed to draw in as many people as possible and to remove barriers. The orchestra is a registered nonprofit and does not charge for concerts, Ravita said, adding that it does ask for donations.
Conductor and musical director Dimitar Nikolov, a music teacher who lives in Annapolis, said making classical music accessible, especially to younger people, is an important part of his work.
The group’s concerts vary widely, from popular music concerts to performances including Star Wars Stormtroopers in costume. Many of its concerts are designed for children, Nikolov said, gesturing at the auditorium seats. “If we don’t cultivate it early, in 20 years these seats will be empty,” he said.
Ravita said at children’s concerts, the group often gives away instruments to children, so they can learn to play music without having to pay often-exorbitant instrument rental costs. The group also provides a small scholarship to Loch Raven High School students studying music, he said.
Nikolov began his career as an assistant conductor at the Burgas State Opera in his native Bulgaria, according to an online biography. He moved to the United States in 1996 and has conducted multiple musical groups across the country and in Eastern Europe.
To get new classical music listeners engaged, Nikolov likes to choose creative pieces that can incorporate audience participation or visuals — pieces that are “out of the box.”
“Classical music shouldn’t be boring,” Nikolov said. “It should be exciting.”
To watch Nikolov conduct the orchestra of more than 30 musicians is anything but boring. Nikolov conducted Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” in staccato bursts of energy, arms rising and falling with the boom of the timpani. During rehearsals, he stops abruptly to tell a musician to soften a sound or tweak a phrase, sounding out the rhythm — “taka-DUM-dum, taka-DUM-dum.”
The group does not hold auditions for orchestra members, instead relying on musicians to determine for themselves whether they have the skills to keep up with the music.
Auditions “become a barrier,” Ravita said, adding that some musicians get nervous about the audition process and do not play as well as they would otherwise. “The idea is this is a place for the community to come together and do what they love,” he said.
When a seat in the orchestra needs filling, Ravita said the group puts out a call and often gets responses from people who have not played in 10 or 15 years. “We say just come [to a rehearsal], sit in your section and we’ll figure it out,” he said.
Those orchestra members, Ravita said, come from a cross-section of society. As many as 50 people are members of the orchestra at one time, and Sunday slightly fewer than 40 members performed. Some are young, some retired; some hail from Towson, and some drive from as far away as the Eastern Shore.
Rodney Allen, 62, of Perry Hall, the orchestra’s concert master and a violinist, is on one end of the spectrum, now retired. He served for 20 years with the 287th Army Band and Orchestra, supporting combat operations in Iraq. Allen encouraged his music student, 17-year-old violist Elizabeth Vogel, a student at Perry Hall High School, to join the orchestra.
“It’s a nice change of pace,” Vogel said. The teen is in a leadership position in her high school orchestra but said the Baltimore Philharmonia Orchestra is a good way to get more exposure in the industry. And for the self-described “outgoing” teenager, the orchestra of adults and professional musicians is a good way to “learn my place,” even as she admits she sometimes “butts heads” with the conductor.
High school orchestra material often “isn’t challenging,” Allen said, noting that he often works with high school students to get them involved in Baltimore Philharmonia. The Towson orchestra gets students to experience a “more professional” setting with music of a higher caliber, he said. In addition to Perry Hall High School, students have come from schools including Calvert Hall and River Hill High School in Clarksville.
Sunday’s concert also gave young musicians like Vogel the opportunity to perform with a well-known professional musician. Canadian pianist Lorraine Min traveled to Towson to perform at the request of concert patron Gene Belz, the brother of Lutherville’s Paul Belz.
Gene Belz, 76, of Clinton, Iowa, found a video of Min performing one of his favorite classical pieces, the Saint-Saens “Piano Concerto No. 4.” He emailed her to tell her how much he enjoyed it, and she responded. He decided to sponsor some of her concerts, including one in Towson, to perform the song his brother Paul found in the Library of Congress.
Paul Belz, the self-published novelist, said he always had a fascination with the Winans family, railroad industrialists who worked on the B&O Railroad. He grew up near Leakin Park, which was once the Winans’ country estate.
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Thomas Winans, son of inventor Ross Winans, held a special fascination for Belz because of the historical figure’s time spent in Russia, working on the railroad between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Winans married a Russian woman and built the Orianda House mansion on the property and named the land the Crimea Estate, after the Crimea region in Ukraine.
“That place is just mysterious,” Paul Belz said, recalling a childhood spent exploring the old cemetery, the cliffs and the quarries. And for him, the story of the Winans family is about “the history of the industrial revolution and the history of Baltimore.”
So when Belz retired from a real estate career, he began working on a novel about Winans. For seven years, researching and writing the book he titled “The American Opus” was his full-time occupation.
When he stumbled upon the song that Thomas Winans commissioned for his dying sister, he “couldn’t believe it.”
“She was his only sister, they were very close,” Belz said. To hear the song, written for a man he had studied for years, was meaningful, Belz said.
“Lorraine Min’s playing of the waltz was exquisitely beautiful,” Belz said.
The Baltimore Philharmonia Orchestra’s next concert is scheduled for 3 p.m. May 5 in St. Matthew Catholic Church, 5401 Loch Raven Blvd. In that concert, the orchestra will perform two original compositions, Ravita said, one submitted from New York and one composed by an orchestra member. That concert also will feature Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto.”