If all goes as planned, most of Washington's A list, their guests and friends will get all gussied up to attend this evening's National Symphony Orchestra season-opening Ball Concert at the Kennedy Center. Thanks to hosts Barbara Franklin and Wally Barnes, and my wife, Gwen, yours truly has been asked to tag along to represent my end of the social alphabet list -- the XYZ cluster -- an honor I accept with pride, thank you very much.
But here's a little something that many of tonight's hoity-toity wouldn't know: Some of us low-end social types were doing the National Symphony Orchestra before doing the NSO was considered cool. In fact, it was the National Symphony Orchestra that provided one of the first cracks in the Jim Crow wall that separated black and white children of my generation.
It must have been 1950 when my Stevens Elementary School class received word from our principal, Mrs. Lillian S. Malone, to come to school the next day "neat and clean" because we were going to DAR Constitution Hall for a symphony concert. "Neat and clean" was the grade school equivalent of getting all gussied up.
I can't recall how we reached Constitution Hall at 17th and D streets NW from Stevens, which is at 21st and L NW. We probably used the preferred mode of transportation of the day -- our feet -- because we didn't have a school bus and our destination was only blocks away. As my late father used to say, "Walking ain't crowded."
Our principal had good reason for insisting that we be presentable and well behaved, though I didn't know it at the time. Eleven years earlier, the owners of Constitution Hall, the Daughters of the American Revolution, had denied Marian Anderson the opportunity to perform her Easter concert in their auditorium because she was black. Constitution Hall in 1950, therefore, was not exactly one of our favorite stomping grounds. Mrs. Malone was bound and determined to make sure that Stevens children did not discredit their school or themselves.
What's more, we learned that we were attending the NSO concert with students from -- ta-dum -- white schools. The message from home and school: Let no one at Constitution Hall say that black kids didn't know how to act when they were out in public.
My younger brother, Cranston, recalls his classmates being seated stiff as boards in DAR Constitution Hall, waiting for the concert to start, meanwhile stealing looks out of the corners of their eyes at the white kids in the auditorium who were fidgeting in their seats and talking up a storm. I recall an old white man seated across the aisle who seemed to be conducting the orchestra from his seat -- something I had never seen before.
Our Constitution Hall audience -- years before the Supreme Court spoke in 1954 on school desegregation -- wasn't exactly the salt-and-pepper audience that will be on display at the Kennedy Center tonight -- though even now we are likely to see far more salt than pepper. But despite the segregated Washington of more than 50 years ago, symphony concerts back then still didn't play to white-only audiences. For that, give some credit to those who put together the youth concerts.
The National Symphony Orchestra helped prepare me and hundreds of others my age for a unique musical experience. This evening's gussied-up elite may be surprised to learn that classical symphonic music is not the special province of a black-tie crowd. To be sure, many of the folks who won't be attending this evening's Ball Concert or who rarely visit the Kennedy Center may not know the difference between the Renaissance and baroque periods of music or what separates a classical from a romantic symphony, or a Schubert from a Haydn. Count me among them. But they know the classics when they hear them, and -- surprise, surprise -- are just as moved by a stirring orchestral composition as Leonard Slatkin . . . well, perhaps I go too far. But my point is that those NSO concerts of my youth had a lasting value. The performances left their mark.
To be sure, in our youth, we also spent several evenings during the '50s on the steps and terraces of the old Watergate leading down to the Potomac River, listening to groups such as the Clovers and R&B singer Ruth Brown as they performed on a barge that had been converted into a stage. But we also stopped to hear the NSO when it played there. Where we were concerned, one kind of music didn't cancel out the other. We loved hearing Ruth Brown belt out "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and, say, a performance of a Beethoven piano concerto. For that music appreciation, I also thank the NSO.
Now embarking on its 75th season, the NSO has stood the test of time. Age-wise, I'm not that far behind. Neither is another phenomenon. Today in the nation's capital, the NSO is sharing center stage with a large antiwar protest over the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The year the NSO and I first met at Constitution Hall, America went to war in Korea. Ten years after the NSO was founded, and two years after I was born, America entered World War II. Seems as though war and the NSO have always been somewhere there in my life. The NSO, even in our limited engagement, represents the better part.
And what a journey. Founded when races were worlds apart, the NSO is launching its 75th season with salt-and-pepper leadership: Ann D. Jordan as chairman and Michael F. Brewer as president and immediate past chairman. In this troubled world, who cares which is which, as long as they and the NSO are creating great music together.