National Symphony Orchestra musicians performed on Jan. 4 at Arena Stage. (Tracey Salazar)

On Wednesday night, the National Symphony Orchestra ventured out of the Kennedy Center into the wide world of Washington. Well, its musicians ventured all the way to Arena Stage: from one cultural temple to another. But the chamber concert that the orchestra’s concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef, and three colleagues played that night was the official start of the sixth annual iteration of NSO in Your Neighborhood, the community initiative, continuing through Monday, that brings the orchestra to schools, coffee shops, nursing homes and community centers in the city — this year, to venues in Southeast and Southwest. 

Diversity and community outreach are two of orchestras’ biggest watchwords these days as they try to overturn entrenched perceptions of orchestras as a white elitist bastion. In the NSO’s case, outreach is a part of the orchestra’s tradition after several decades of an American Residency program that took the orchestra to some 30 states, from South Dakota to West Virginia. When those grew too expensive, the orchestra, perhaps more sensibly, began cultivating its own back yard — “more sensibly” because local access bears at least the possibility of some kind of continuity, of creating something more than a one-off experience, which is one of the biggest challenges for all community outreach programs. 

“In order to have impact, there needs to be consistency,” says Warren G. Williams, the NSO’s manager of community relations. “There are opportunities to build stronger connections if we have more points of contact during the year.” 

The orchestra, he said, is considering a year-round version of NSO in Your Neighborhood involving chamber concerts with some of the orchestra’s partners, such as the restaurant/coffee shop Busboys and Poets, where a small group of musicians played as part of a poetry slam last year. “We have plans to continue the format of the week-long residency, but expand it so it’s not in isolation,” Williams added.

A mistake that many observers make in considering such programs is to misconstrue their point as essentially promotional, by saying, erroneously, that they only “work” to the degree to which they drum up new ticket-buyers for the orchestra’s core Kennedy Center programming. Those in charge of these programs around the country, including Williams, are aware that their function is more basic and perhaps less quantifiable: simply, in Williams’s words, “to create a new window for an audience member.” It’s not always even about changing perceptions of an orchestra, though that is part of the goal: It can be as simple as just getting an orchestra on people’s radar. 

“So many people have been left out of some of the most beautiful important things in society,” Williams says. “People have just not been at the table. . . . What we’re hoping to do is just open it up [and] create an opportunity for people to experience the beauty that orchestras can create. If you experience that beauty, nobody can take that from you.”

In addition, and very smartly, the orchestra is also recognizing the interactive potential of the community relationships it’s developing — the importance of listening as well as giving. Williams says that some of the orchestra’s new community partners are also serving as focus groups to test ideas not just about the Neighborhood initiative, but about the orchestra’s programming in general. “Is this the right direction? What things matter to people?” Williams says, as examples of the kinds of questions that the focus groups might address. “This has been a hard nut to crack, and we haven’t solved it.”

These questions certainly surface when it comes to the relatively basic conundrum of figuring out, when your goal is outreach, what to play. Often, the “outreach” programming seems to consist of watered-down music that, while “lighter” than standard classical fare, isn’t necessarily more appealing if it also isn’t very good. 

Wednesday night’s program consisted of a single work: Claude Bolling’s Suite for Violin and Jazz Piano Trio, written in the 1970s for Pinchas Zukerman. The goal of the opening concert, Williams says, is “to appeal to the broadest audience possible,” demonstrating that “classical musicians can perform music that’s fun for everybody.” I’m not sure, though, that Bolling’s suite, beguiling though it may be for aficionados with its easy-listening traversal of a range of dance styles, from gavotte to Slavonic dance to Hora, is that much fun for the uninitiated, who might find in it confirmation of stereotypes about classical music being a long slog to sit through. Still, the playing was delightful; Bar-Josef introduced it all delightfully and conversationally; and the audience broke into appreciative applause between movements and when it was over.