The Washington Post

Amateur musicians savor performance opportunities

At the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s first ever ‘Rusty Musicians’ event, regular folks could play with the BSO. Emile Gogineni practices his violin as Frances Eargle, who plays cello at center, chats with Kimberly Johnson, who plays bass, at right. (SUSAN BIDDLE/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

“I’m not pursuing money at this point,” says Mary Padilla. “I’m pursuing the best musical experience I can find.”

Padilla, 47, is a software developer who lives in Woodbridge. She’s also an oboe player. Although she is not a professional musician, she plays with four orchestras. Her life doesn’t look altogether different from that of some freelancing professionals: working out the logistics of a complicated rehearsal and performance schedule, picking up other gigs when she can.

On Tuesday night, Padilla will take part in a “Rusty Musicians” concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Hall. For the fourth time, the orchestra is inviting amateur musicians onstage to perform with it under the baton of Marin Alsop.

When the orchestra announced its first “Rusty Musicians” event in February 2010 at the Music Center at Strathmore, more than 600 people signed up. The BSO responded to this obvious interest by continuing the program (more than 200 people signed up for Tuesday’s “Rusties,” which accommodated the first 175) and adding a summer institute called The Academy, where for a fee amateurs participate in an intense week of lessons and concerts with BSO musicians. Padilla has taken part in each Rusty Musicians event and both Academies.

“A couple of times a year,” she says, “I am playing with the highest-quality orchestra I will ever play with in my life.”

Washington is good at celebrating the amateur musician. That would be “amateur” in the sense of loving music, not necessarily “amateur” in the quasi-pejorative sense of not being fully serious about it.

On Saturday night, the Friday Morning Music Club will celebrate its 125th anniversary with a gala concert. Founded in 1886 by 15 women who loved music, the club has expanded to include an orchestra, international competitions, outreach programs, and several concert series, including free lunchtime concerts on Fridays at noon in — as of this fall — Calvary Baptist Church.

Every year, the club’s 600-odd performing members submit pieces they’d like to perform, and from these submissions a committee assembles 60-odd recital programs that represent a wide range of both music and abilities. The season opener on Oct. 7 at noon features a piano duo, a guitarist, a violinist and a soprano. The musicians volunteer their services.

The club describes itself simply as “a community of music lovers and musicians.” “We’re open to anyone who wants to audition,” says Barbara Cackler, program director. Some of the performing members are doctors and lawyers. Some play for the National Symphony Orchestra. “It’s really a mixed bag,” Cackler says.

Natalie Barrens Rogers, a soprano and a club member, will sing at Saturday’s gala and on Oct. 7. “I’m a freelance musician, a professional,” she says.

Why do professionals join the club? For Barrens Rogers, 35, who joined in 2008, membership has meant both regular performing opportunities — solo performances in Washington are nothing to sneeze at — and a way to meet other musicians, amateur and professional alike. “I find a lot of the amateurs are folks who have music degrees or have had some semblance or whiff of a career,” she says. “They’ve moved on, but want to get back into performing. That line between amateur versus professional is very gray.”

Destiny Ann Hoyle, a 26-year-old violinist, is a new club member who’s also appearing on Oct. 7. Hoyle, from South Dakota, first came to Washington for the National Symphony Orchestra’s Summer Music Institute after the NSO did a residency in her state in 2002; NSO musicians continued to mentor her during her graduate studies at Catholic University. She joined the Friday Morning Music Club this year because “I’m at that place in my life where I’ll take all the performance opportunities I can get.” She wasn’t aware, until asked, that the club was associated with amateurs.

One member is the pianist Victoria Bragin, a retired chemistry professor who won first prize at the Cliburn Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in 2002. (She will perform Beethoven’s 18th sonata Oct. 14.) “She’s phenomenal,” says Cackler (herself a professional with a graduate degree from the Yale School of Music). “She’s technically an amateur because she made her living as a chemistry professor, but anyone hearing her would think she was a professional.”

The classical music world used to take amateurs a lot more seriously. Indeed, many important composers and performers were “amateurs,” like Ignaz von Beecke, a military officer who engaged in a friendly piano face-off with the teenage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (Posterity has it that Mozart outplayed him, but many contemporaries considered that von Beecke had won.) Amateurs founded the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna in the early 19th century; the group, much like the Friday Morning Music Club, sponsored a range of concerts, and managed eventually to get a hall of its own, the Musikverein, one of the most famous concert halls in the world.

And music, for most of Western history, was a participatory art form. Before recordings, if you wanted to hear music, you had to make it yourself. There were fewer concerts; operas and symphonies were issued in piano arrangements, and sheet music was what made rock stars out of composers. In short, it wasn’t unusual for amateurs to make music at a fairly high level. Yet today, being able to play an instrument is seen as something different from enjoying music as a fan. And although one study indicates that 70 percent of orchestral audiences have played instruments at some time in their lives, many serious amateur musicians — like Padilla — are too busy making music to go to many concerts themselves.

Professional musicians like Ellen Pendleton Troyer, a violinist with the BSO, can empathize. “It’s far better playing these pieces,” she said in 2010, at the time of the first Rusty Musicians performance, “than it is to listen to them.”

This helps explain why, at a time organizations are concerned about a decline in audiences, there are more musicians than ever. Cackler, who joined the music club in the early 1980s, says that “the audition requirements have become much more stringent.” Once you’ve auditioned for the club and been accepted, you’re in it for life, and regular attendees know there are some members of longer standing who represent “amateurism” in today’s commonly accepted sense. But the new members, Cackler says, are getting better and better. “The level of playing out there is higher,” she says.

Mary Padilla is certainly trying to become part of that trend, though she has no plans to give up her day job.

“It gives me my balance in life,” she says, of her music-making. And, she adds, in a statement that explains why so many doctors and lawyers and professors are among the amateur musician ranks: “If you have any kind of workaholic tendencies, you have something to go do that keeps you out of work.”

Rusty Musicians with the BSO

Tuesday at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore at 7 p.m. and 8:20 p.m; free.

Friday Morning Music Club’s 125th anniversary gala

is Saturday at 4 p.m. at Calvary Baptist Church; free. The club’s regular season of free Friday noon concerts begins Oct. 7 at Calvary Baptist Church.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.



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