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Our Baltimore: the BSO’s Marin Alsop explains how she fell in love with this city

Asia Palmer (center) and Dan Trahey receive a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program award from then-First Lady Michelle Obama in 2013.
Asia Palmer (center) and Dan Trahey receive a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program award from then-First Lady Michelle Obama in 2013. (Handout / HANDOUT)

I first fell in love with Baltimore when I guest conducted the Baltimore Symphony in 2002. The BSO, one of only 16 full-time major orchestras in the entire United States, plays with passion, purpose, optimism and integrity. Moving to Baltimore in 2007 to accept the position of music director of the BSO, I was not surprised to find that these core qualities define not only the orchestra but the residents and the city of Baltimore itself.

My desire to connect with a larger community and work toward a richer, more diverse and inclusive symphonic world led me to follow my heart to share the joy of classical music with as many people as possible. In 2008 Dan Trahey, Nick Skinner and I started an after-school program with 30 first graders at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in West Baltimore.

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Our idea was to give these kids the same opportunity we had to express ourselves, using music as our shared vehicle.

We kicked off the 2008 school year with a cleanup and paint day at Harriet Tubman. That’s where I first met Lynette Fields. Lynette said “Miss Marin, I sure hope you conduct better than you paint!” A great introduction to this astutely understated woman.

We had no idea if any kids would sign up for our program or what they or their community would think of our odd trio invading their neighborhood.

Lynette told me many years later that everyone thought we were undercover investigators. But, in spite of these suspicions, they were willing to give us a chance, and Lynette enrolled her twins Asia and Andre in the new “OrchKids” (orchestra kids) program.

Fast forward 11 years later to today, and I couldn’t be prouder of Asia and Andre -- and Lynette, too, who is celebrating her 11th year working for Orchkids.

Asia just graduated from the Baltimore School for the Arts and was accepted into the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford – her first choice for college – where she will major in flute and arts management.

Andre, more reserved than Asia, is an incoming senior at the Mergenthaler Vocational High School. He is a wonderfully gifted musician and percussionist. Andre wants to pursue a career related to computers and play music as a hobby. He, like Asia, is a role model for the younger OrchKids and returns every afternoon to West Baltimore to work with the next generation. The older students take their roles as mentors very seriously, always participating in program projects as student leaders; helping with homework time; and often providing extra, non-musical support for the younger students. For Asia and Andre, this is community and this is home; they make the program richer and are committed to supporting their peers.

Their younger brother, Aaron, plays saxophone, and Lynette tells me that OrchKids has dramatically shifted the trajectory of his life, especially as a child growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome.

We believe that all children need to be seen and accepted for who they are and where they are in any given moment, and our commitment is to nurture them as fully as possible. When Aaron struggled to attend daily practices, we worked with Lynette to design a program and structure the classroom in a manner that worked best for him and that he enjoyed.

In these 11 years, our OrchKids family has grown from 30 kids to over 1,600 kids. And every one of them exudes passion, purpose, optimism and integrity.

When journalists ask “what’s your proudest achievement,” I answer without hesitation: OrchKids!

And when they ask me what dreams I have for the future, I say: “To have 10,000 OrchKids in Baltimore!”

When the nightly news lead story is finally about these wonderful, talented, exuberant, inspiring young people, I will be happy.

Their passion, purpose, optimism and integrity are a reflection of the beauty of Baltimore and speak to the enormous possibility within every child, within every one of us, and within our beautiful city

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From the bottom of my heart I thank you for your support of our world class Baltimore Symphony and these amazing young Baltimoreans.

It has been my privilege to call Baltimore my home.

Marin Alsop (Malsop@bsomusic.org) is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Twitter: @marinalsop.

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series of essays about “Our Baltimore” from prominent Baltimoreans.

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