Correction to This Article
A photo caption misidentified an amateur violinist that participated in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's "Rusty Musicians" concert at Strathmore on Tuesday night. The musician is Laura Belland, not Abigail Cooley.

Baltimore Symphony allows amateur 'Rusty Musicians' to join the orchestra

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 2010

On Thursday night, Martine Micozzi is going to play with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore.

Micozzi is not a professional flutist. She works at the National Academy of Sciences. But a chance to play with the BSO wasn't something she was about to pass up.

She's not alone. On Tuesday night at Strathmore, the BSO held the first part of a two-night event called "Rusty Musicians With the BSO," created by Music Director Marin Alsop as a way for the BSO to celebrate Strathmore's fifth anniversary season. Anybody older than 25 who played an orchestral instrument and could read music could have a chance to perform serious orchestral repertory with the BSO players. It's a rare chance: Among American orchestras, only the Pittsburgh Symphony has tried anything similar.

Alsop's staff initially thought she was a little crazy. Major international orchestras work hard to be the best at what they do and be admired by their audiences, not mingle with them. Would amateurs be good enough to play with professionals? Would anybody be interested in such a scheme? The answer to the second question rapidly became clear. "Within 24 hours," Alsop said, "we had 400 people sign up."

What resulted was part orchestral concert, part exercise in troop movements for the BSO staff. "I want every single person to have the experience," Alsop said. But no one wanted the amateur musicians to dominate the BSO players. The solution: Alsop and orchestra members performed the same two excerpts -- the finale of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony and "Nimrod" from Elgar's "Enigma Variations" -- four times in a row on Tuesday night, between 6 and 10 p.m., with four different groups of "rusty" players. They will do the same thing on Thursday, with four more groups, in front of an informal audience (tickets are $10). By the end of the night, more than 400 amateur musicians will have gotten their taste of life with a professional orchestra.

Many of these amateurs, like Micozzi, are accomplished professionals -- but in different fields. The "rusty musicians" included everyone from students to retirees; from M. Jamal Foster, a Baltimore-based minister and avid percussionist who teaches church leadership around the country and played the triangle on Tuesday night, to Merle Biggin, a retired government employee who plays his tuba in four or five community ensembles. One unifying factor: They were all pretty good musicians. The level of performance "was higher than what I thought it would be," said Kristine Strecker, a French horn player.

Former music majors

That's because many of the musicians were, like Strecker, former music majors who thought of pursuing professional music careers before they decided, as Strecker said, "to do something a little more lucrative." Strecker's job at Black and Decker means "I can afford my hobby," she said. Since moving to the Baltimore area two years ago, she has been playing with the student orchestra at the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus.

Alsop, who tried a similar "rusty musicians" experiment when she was principal conductor in Bournemouth, England, was targeting people like these. Like all musicians, she knows plenty of people from her own student years who were highly talented but ended up doing other things for a living. As a result, the "rusty musicians" included a plethora of highly motivated professionals.

The discussion board on Violinist.com has been abuzz with the debate of just how fast Alsop's tempo would be at the start of the Tchaikovsky movement, which is a knuckle-bender even for professional string players. (Alsop finally called up her label and asked them to make a download of her performance of the piece available to participants.) Ellen Pendleton Troyer, a violinist with the BSO, was impressed with the results. "My stand partner was nailing everything," she said.

The Rusty Musicians event is conceived as an exercise in community-building. "Our vision for the orchestra is that it's a destination point for the community," Alsop said. She also observed that "our society is changing dramatically to become more participatory." People are no longer content to sit by and watch.

Foster, the minister-percussionist who played the triangle on Tuesday night, is a case in point: a BSO subscriber, he also participated in the singalong portion of "Too Hot to Handel," the BSO's gospel take on "Messiah," at Christmas. "I've jumped into a lot of these community events," he said. The same principle fuels what seems to be an ever-growing number of singalong performances of Handel's "Messiah" every Christmas, leading one Washington-area choral director to dream aloud of a karaoke version of the Verdi "Requiem." In an audience survey last year, the BSO learned that some 70 percent of their audience members had once played an instrument.

Academy for amateurs

To capitalize on the desire to play along, the BSO is following up on its Rusty Musicians experiment in June with an orchestral academy for adult amateurs. For $1,650 -- another revenue stream for an orchestra that needs it -- participants will have an intense week of master classes, lectures and public performances with BSO members led by Alsop.

Classical music has long thrived on participation: Before the dawn of recording, classical sales boomed in the form of sheet music enabling people to play their favorite works at home. But it remains an open question whether those who participate are equally willing to be audience members. An informal survey of a few Rusty Musicians on Tuesday revealed that few of them seemed to go regularly to BSO performances.

"If I hadn't gone into classical music, would I rather be an audience member, or would I rather do something like this?" said the BSO's Troyer. "I'd much rather do this. It's far better playing these pieces than it is to listen to them." Troyer understands that there is nothing quite like sitting in the middle of an orchestra while it's playing; it's something she hears about from her husband, a former percussionist who left music. "He's been trying to duplicate that [sound] on a stereo system ever since," she said.

Biggin, the tuba player, is another musician who doesn't go to many performances; "I'm usually too busy rehearsing and performing myself," he said. However, the experience of playing with the "great musicians" on Tuesday night certainly opened him up to the BSO. "I think I'll go more often," he said, "now that I've had the experience of sitting in."

Rusty Musicians With the BSO

Thursday at 6 p.m. Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Call 301-581-5100 or visit http://www.strathmore.org.


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