Second Presbyterian Church in Guilford was filling up at mid-afternoon Sunday, and so was a collections bowl on a table piled with concert programs in the foyer.
The crowd of about 200 people wasn't there for church services, but for a free chamber music concert, and the bowl was for donations.
"I've always been a lover of classical music, particularly chamber music," said Linda Baker, one of a contingent of senior citizens from Pikesville who came early and got seats in a front-row pew. "I feel like I'm right there," said Baker, who is moving next month to Springwell Senior Living in Mount Washington.
"I've been coming a long time," said Mollie Witow, 94, also sitting in the front row, "and what I like is that it's an intimate atmosphere."
The nonprofit organization, Community Concerts at Second, which is based in, but independent of, the imposing church in the 4200 block of St. Paul Street, has opened its 29th season, sponsoring 16 concerts a season, from September to June. Sunday's performance by the renowned pianist Boris Slutsky, cellist Suren Bagratuni and violinist Dmitri Berlinsky, billed as Boris Slutsky & Friends, was the first Sunday afternoon concert of the new season.
Each season also includes a series of Chamber Music by Candlelight concerts on Sunday evenings, featuring musicians from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The first was Sept. 20 and the next is Nov. 1.
Community Concerts at Second also sponsors the annual Russell C. Wonderlic Memorial Competition, funded since 1990 as a bequest of the late philanthropist to develop the careers and talents of young pianists and vocalists in the region. The competition, which alternates each year between piano and voice, is for residents of Maryland and Washington, or non-residents attending schools there. This year's competition recital was in April. Prominent winners have included pianists Awadagin Pratt and Eric Zuber and soprano Hyunah Yu.
Toby August, sitting in the second row for Boris Slutsky and Friends, marveled as the audience swelled. She said the concert series has "grown so much over the years," and that when she first started coming to the concerts, "I couldn't believe how few people were here."
Now, it's not unusual to see 225 concertgoers on average in a church that seats about 600 and is known for its good acoustics. Audiences for the concerts, which range from 90 minutes to two hours long, are growing at 10 percent a year, said Gina Parks, part-time managing director of Community Concerts at Second.
Those numbers are music to Parks' ears. She said getting well-known performers such as Slutsky, Pratt and legendary Baltimore-based pianist Leon Fleisher — and negotiating their performance fees on an annual budget that fluctuates between $120,000 and $130,000 — is easier because the performers are drawn to the combination of acoustics, free admission and the setting of the sanctuary as a concert venue. It also helps that the concerts have private donors and corporate sponsors, who pay $2,500. M&T Bank sponsored Boris Slutsky and Friends.
"All of the above," said Slutsky, of Owings Mills, rehearsing in a room downstairs from the sanctuary Sunday.
"I think it's a wonderful opportunity for people to come and hear good music," said Slutsky, who also teaches at Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Conservatory. "And I have an opportunity to bring my friends and play wonderful music."
"We've been around for 28 years. It seems to be working," said Parks, of Howard County, who is starting her seventh season as managing director.
A blessing for the church
Originally named The Second Presbyterian Concert Series, Community Concerts at Second was founded in 1987 by Margaret Budd, then organist of Second Presbyterian Church, who went to a candlelight series of concerts in a church in London, England, and envisioned sponsoring similar concerts in Second Presbyterian. She remembers being "instrumental" in keeping the concerts alive, doing everything from contacting potential performers to publicity.
"I had hopes" that the new Community Concerts at Second would thrive, Bud recalls. "We had a small, enthusiastic group of volunteers."
Now 86, Budd is listed as Artistic Director Emerita and still serves on the board.
"I go to all the board meetings," she said, "and it's a lively bunch, I tell you."
The organization was renamed Community Concerts at Second in 2002, and became a separate entity and nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization in 2004, with a volunteer governing board of up to 25 members.
For the church's pastor, the Rev. Thomas Blair, Community Concerts at Second is a blessing because the concerts, some of which he said draw 300 people, generate good will and foot traffic.
"With this large number of people coming through the doors of our wonderful sanctuary, there is a natural cross-pollination of music, spirit, friendship and community concern," Blair said. He said he has noticed more visitors and heightened visibility, thanks in part to radio ads Community Concerts at Second runs.
"People do find out about the church through the concert series, and the message is always welcoming and beautiful," he said.
Although the church and Community Concerts at Second are now separate entities, "I think it's really a lovely partnership," said board president Beth Ann Felder, who lives near the church and is a congregant. "They are not involved in the governance but they really are our home."
That kind of partnership is important to a nonprofit that has only two part-time staffers, Parks and a bookkeeper hired last year.
"Otherwise, it's a labor of love by the board. A lot of people's contribution is time," said Felder, director of federal affairs for Johns Hopkins University.
The concert series is also unusual for its neighborhood, grass-roots feel.
"It's the only concert series that's programmed from the bottom up," said Colonnade resident John Boland, a member of the board (his wife, Bonnie, is board secretary) and of a committee led by McDonogh School choral director Philip Olsen, which helps co-artistic directors Marcia Kamper and Ivan Stefanovic choose performers for the concerts, based on their applications, press kits and the musical samples they provide.
Board member and pianist Mellasenah Morris, a part-time coach/accompanist and former dean of the Peabody Conservatory, loves the idea that people can come to a "beautiful venue" to see good concerts, "without having to pay for a ticket."
"There's a good blend of new music and favorites," said Morris, who also serves on the selection committee. "It just adds to the vibrancy of the music scene in Baltimore. It's a good feeling to know that music is so alive and well in the minds of people in Baltimore. It's a very receptive audience. They just eat it up."
Bonnie Boland, who teaches water resources planning part-time at Hopkins, said she saw a poster for the concert series in 2005 and began attending with her husband, 79, a professor emeritus at Hopkins who still teaches environmental economics there.
"We kind of stumbled into it," Bonnie Boland said. "We go to about every concert. You can't beat the price."
The concert series got her interested in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, whose members perform in the candlelight concerts.
"The concert series was my gateway drug into the BSO," she said.
John Boland also loves working on the selection committee, which plans concerts two years out and will meet next month to begin reviewing applications for the 2017-18 season..
"It's a satisfying job," he said. "I get excited about some of the people who are coming."
"I love the community concerts. I love the scene," said board member Susan Weiss, of Lutherville, a Peabody professor of musicology whose students have included Pratt, who is now a professor at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
"I think it's a testimonial to the community that they care so much about the arts," said Weiss, who gives her students extra credits for attending the free concerts.
As the concert series approaches 30 years, Parks and the board are looking to the future, but with an eye on what works. She said a marketing committee is working on such projects as having buses bring area seniors from retirement communities to the concerts. There's also been an effort to book different kinds of concerts, such as a saxophone quartet last year.
'I think that was a really big thing, to get them to branch out a little bit," she said.
But the board has abandoned such projects as doing children's shows and is sticking mostly to what it does best, Parks said.
"It seems like what we do best is bringing in the high-quality concerts and doing them for free," she said.