Classical music today just isn't what it used to be.
"You hear a lot of talk that classical music is struggling to stay relevant in our culture," says Jason Love, now in his 10th year as artistic director of the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestra. "But we're finding a lot of growth."
The orchestra is not simply finding growth but driving it. Led by new executive director Peter Schafer, the 29-year-old youth organization is reaching for a larger audience, beginning with a new bus advertising campaign to promote Sunday's holiday concert.
"The tagline is, 'They look like kids but play like pros,'" Schafer says. "Without hearing them, people are probably thinking of scratchy playing that's hard to endure, but we're offering very high-quality musicianship." Most of the orchestra's members are in grades eight through 12.
"We've put audio samples on our Web site so people can hear the kind of quality experiences that we provide for our audiences," says Love. "People who are not used to making a big investment of time and money for classical music can make a smaller investment and come see us."
Schafer and Love have made it a priority to take advantage of the youth orchestra's unique combination of quality musicianship and low ticket prices to bring classical music to a larger audience, particularly to those who otherwise would not have access to it.
"The orchestra has always done community outreach work, traditionally in nursing homes and malls," Schafer says. "This February we're going to be playing at Kennedy Krieger and Johns Hopkins Hospital - but the one thing that's really new is our efforts to reach out to city audiences. We're trying to reach out to traditionally underserved audiences and to develop and nurture talent in city schools."
"We had really recognized a need for diversity over the last few years," agrees Love. "We recognized that we were getting fewer and fewer students from Baltimore City, because there are so few music programs left. There were many kids who would never have the opportunity to study music seriously unless we stepped in."
After several years in development, the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestra Association created the Bridges Program, now in its first year: It is a three-year after-school strings program at three inner city schools, with the instruction and the instruments provided by the GBYOA.
"We'll be exposing great music to a lot of kids who just wouldn't have the opportunity otherwise," Love says. "The goal is for the kids who participate in the Bridges program to continue on with us in the youth orchestra. We want our program to become a model for other cities facing a similar challenge in meeting the needs of city children."
"Along with that, we're doing outreach to have those kids come to our concerts with their families," says Schafer. "At our fall concert, we had over 60 people connected through the Bridges Program from the three city schools. We're hoping even more will come to our holiday concert."
Its growing audiences aside, the youth orchestra's new initiatives are bringing rewards in themselves.
"There's a tremendous difference between playing Beethoven's 5th Symphony for the hundredth time and for the first time," Love says. "Kids bring a new energy and open-mindedness when they discover these pieces. And they often find them more meaningful than the music they already listen to, which is a pretty magical thing to see."
The Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestra's Holiday Concert is at 4 p.m. Sunday at the McManus Theatre, Calvert Hall College High School, 8102 LaSalle Road in Towson. Tickets are $10 ($5 for students) and are available online at gbyo.com.