With free music, NSO reaches out to folks just up the road


Glenn Donnellan and wife Jan Chong with their children. (Margot Schulman)
December 30, 2011

Something strange is about to happen in Columbia Heights.

You may not be able to turn around without running into an oboe. Cellos will ascend the Metro. Timpani will gather near the Target. There’ll be trombones at the Tivoli.

The National Symphony Orchestra has performed an occasional outreach concert in the Northwest Washington neighborhood over the years, but the In Your Neighborhood program — this week and early next week — will be more of a full-scale musical occupation.

The NSO’s most ambitious outreach programs have been to outposts in places such as Alaska and Kentucky, largely serving communities without access to large metropolitan orchestras. But this invasion takes place a little more than 2½ miles up New Hampshire Avenue from the orchestra’s Kennedy Center headquarters.

Nonetheless, the Columbia Heights venture fits into the NSO’s proud history of community outreach, including free summer concerts and its stops at THEARC arts campus in Anacostia (where it will return for a performance Saturday).


Violinist Holly Hamilton. (Carol Pratt/Carol Pratt)

The week’s public events will include one free full-orchestra concert, under the direction of Assistant Conductor Ankush Kumar Bahl at the Columbia Heights Education Campus on Friday night (after a matinee for students only). But most of the more than 30 free performances will feature smaller ensembles in all manner of makeshift concert halls: schoolrooms, community centers, neighborhood arts spaces, restaurants and barrooms.

“In trios, quartets, ensembles, everything you can imagine,” says Rita Shapiro, NSO executive director. “It’s terrifically exciting for musicians. They really like doing these types of performances. They are all wonderful teachers and chamber musicians. To be challenged in different environments or in different collaborations . . . it’s invigorating for us to do this work.”

Why this part of Northwest Washington?

“Columbia Heights is a really interesting, diverse neighborhood,” Shapiro says. “In fact , a number of our musicians live there. We try to keep our eye on interesting neighborhoods in Washington, and we felt this one offered us a great mix of educational outlets, arts spaces and places that people gather where we would have some of our musicians go and offer partnerships.”

But couldn’t Columbia Heights residents just travel the two or three miles to the Kennedy Center if they wanted to see the NSO?

“Geography is seemingly less of a barrier here,” says Warren Williams, the NSO community engagement manager; especially in comparison with Alaska or Kentucky. “But there are other barriers: cultural barriers, financial barriers or societal barriers that may prevent people from going to Metro and seeing the orchestra. They may not know how they’ll be treated in the concert hall. They may not know how to dress. They may not know what to do.”

That’s why it’s important to go where the people are and perform in places that are familiar to them and known to be safe, he says, including community centers, schools and, yes, barrooms.

Planning for the events began last summer with a call for proposals and meetings with representatives of 20 community organizations over lunch at the Kennedy Center, Williams says. “We were met with a lot of enthusiasm,” he says.

More than 50 proposals came in, he says, “and we began to vet what was physically possible.” The number of full symphony concerts was limited by the time needed to prepare a program. But musicians enthusiastically signed up for a lot of small-ensemble performances.

Some took on projects close to their hearts. Holly Hamilton, who has a special-needs child and has studied the therapeutic qualities of music, will give two 30-minute performances at the Easter Seals Child Development Center on Tuesday morning with fellow violinist Vernon Summers.

Glenn Donnellan and his wife, Jan Chong, a fellow violinist and guest artist, will play at Bruce-Monroe Elementary on Tuesday and Martha’s Table Child Development Center on Saturday afternoon.

Donnellan will return to do his one-man show, “Follow that Fiddle!,” next Sunday morning at the BloomBars arts space on 11th Street. The show culminates with his performance on the Electric Slugger, an electric violin fashioned from a baseball bat.

Donnellan will also play in a string quartet — with Ruth Wicker Schaaf on viola, David Teie on cello and Jeffrey Weisner on bass – at the Acre 121 barbecue restaurant and lounge Wednesday night and at the Wonderland Ballroom bar and restaurant Sunday afternoon.

On Sunday night, music of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges will be performed at BloomBars by violinists Alexandra Osborne and Joel Fuller, violist Mahoko Eguchi and cellist Rachel Young in a joint appearance with award-winning hip-hop artist Asheru and rising jazz and R&B vocalist Tamika Love Jones.

NSO trombonists Craig Mulcahy and Barry Hearn and guest trombonists David Murray and Lee Rogers will help kick off Three Kings Day festivities Sunday afternoon at the GALA Hispanic Theatre before playing a concert hosted by St. Stephen’s and the Incarnation Episcopal Church and the We Are Family senior outreach network.

Some performances involve other disciplines, and the NSO’s collaborators will include a spoken word artist at BloomBars and dance students at the Dance Institute of Washington, where the week’s activities will conclude Jan. 9.

Through it all, the NSO will present classical music, Williams says.

“There are some types of performances we just don’t do,” he says. “There is some instrumentation we don’t have. We are not a rock band. We are not a jazz band. We don’t dance in a flash-mob-dance kind of way. We had to look at situations and vet proposals and stay true to what we do best in order to provide the community what we do in the best light.”

Still, it may come as a jolt to find a classical quartet playing at, say, the Wonderland Ballroom, where the jukebox offers the Cramps and 2Pac, not Chopin and Tchaikovsky; where a typical musical offering is the Harikarioke Band Gong Show; where the Sunday special is a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a shot of Jim Beam for $5; and where there is an oil painting of Mr. T on the wall and fried pickles on the menu.

Even the multidisciplinary BloomBars, a block away, where alcohol is not served or allowed, is “a very edgy venue” and “untraditional to us,” Williams says. “Being there allows us to meet new people and see new spaces, and to cultivate new audiences.”

The hope, he says, is to “get the National Symphony Orchestra on their radar. We’re hoping to inspire, to have new audiences consider us as an option, to broaden the people’s palate. When people can recognize the NSO and say, ‘They came to my school,’ it lends a sense of civic pride we hope to promote.”

And Shapiro says: “We have a long history of doing outreach. Having it be part of our city, our hope is that we really make people feel that the National Symphony Orchestra is the heart of the community.”

Catlin is a freelance writer.

Among the free events the NSO plans in Columbia Heights (though free some require tickets; visit http://www.kennedy-center.org/nso/community/NSO_iyn.cfm)

TUESDAY

10 a.m. — Violin duo, Easter Seals Child Development Center, 2800 13th St. NW.

WEDNESDAY

10:30 a.m. — Violin quartet, Temporary Emergency Residential Resource Institute for Families in Crisis (TERRIFIC), 1222 T St. NW.

7 p.m. — String quartet, Acre 121 restaurant, 1400 Irving St. NW.

7 p.m. — String quintet, Busboys & Poets, 2021 14th St. NW.

THURSDAY

10 a.m. — Arts administration discussion, Sitar Arts Center, 1700 Kalorama Road NW. Registration required at www.
sitarartscenter.org
or 202-795-2145.

FRIDAY

7 p.m. — National Symphony Orchestra performs “A World of Music,” conducted by Ankush Kumar Bahl, Columbia Heights Educational Campus, 3101 16th St. NW. To reserve tickets e-mail wqwilliams@
kennedy-center.org or call 202-416-8112.

JAN. 8

10:15 a.m. — “Follow that Fiddle!,” BloomBars, 3222 11th St. NW.

1 p.m. — Chamber trio, All Souls Church, 2835 16th St. NW. To reserve tickets e-mail wqwilliams@kennedy-center.org or call 202-416-8112.

2 p.m. – Trombone quartet, Three Kings Day celebration, GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW.

2 p.m. – String quartet, Wonderland Ballroom, 1101 Kenyon St. NW.

3 p.m. – Trombone quartet, St. Stephen’s and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, 1525 Newton St., NW.

7 p.m. – String quartet, BloomBars, 3222 11th St. NW.

JAN. 9

5:30 p.m. — String trio with dance students, the Dance Institute of Washington, 3400 14th St. NW.

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