Warren Williams, who manages community outreach for the orchestra, was nervous that Friday night earlier this month. Then he was amazed.
There were young black children, clinging to their parents. The local postman and some business owners were there, too. Thirty minutes before the performance, they waited in the hallway of
Bell Multicultural High School
along with an overwhelming mass of the skinny-jeaned, a line that stretched from the metal detectors at the entrance to the seats in the auditorium.
Over the past decade, much has been made of the transformation of Columbia Heights, thanks to the extension of Metro’s Green Line; the opening of big-box stores, such as Target; and a crop of new condos. Housing prices soared; young professionals moved in. Then came the inevitable tension between the working-class African Americans and Latinos who lived in the subsidized housing that once defined the neighborhood.
The NSO saw an opportunity and arranged a week’s worth of free performances and workshops at Bell and smaller venues. It especially set its sights on two of classical music’s most elusive audiences: minorities and young people.
“We thought here was a chance to reach out to everyone,” Williams said after the concert at Bell. “We know there are barriers to people enjoying classical music. But I think this shows that the music itself is not the barrier. We have to do a better job of reaching out.”
Orchestra officials and musicians plan to: They are thinking about expanding to other D.C. neighborhoods but haven’t chosen the next one yet.
As Williams spoke outside Bell’s auditorium after the concert, the orchestra’s assistant conductor walked by.
“That crowd — they were so young and so awesome!” exclaimed Ankush Kumar Bahl, himself only 34. “Let’s find a way we can keep them!”
The audiences were overwhelming: a standing-room-only crowd in the 850-seat auditorium at Bell and more than 5,000 music fans over the course of the week.
The symphony orchestra, whose 100 members see themselves as ambassadors to classical music, has long tried to shatter the porcelain image of symphony audiences being older — much older — by going to places where bands rarely touch Beethoven. Last year, it put on concerts and workshops in Kentucky; the year before, the members harmonized in West Virginia.
It wasn’t until last year that, in one of those “Why didn’t we think of this before?” moments, they thought about doing something similar in their own back yard. Columbia Heights seemed a natural place to start. Through two visits to classrooms at Bell and the attached Lincoln Multicultural Middle School, the staff had an affinity for the neighborhood.
As a business and retail enclave, Columbia Heights long had its own rhythm. Riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. led to decades of urban decay.