Baltimore and Alsop Might Be On To Something

In my February 1, 2010 blog I wrote about the Baltimore Symphony’s plans for a  fantasy camp, (my words) for adults, and how the amateur musicians would be working with the pros of the orchestra.  It is the brainchild of Marin Alsop and apparently it has legs.  Two hundred fifty amateur musicians, now called “Rusty Musicians” or “Rusties” showed up for a recent event—a chance to play along side of BSO musicians and under the baton of Alsop.

It’s a simple idea, but so powerful on a number of levels.  It takes orchestra musicians out of a stuffy, formal atmosphere, and puts a face on what musicians do.  It helps bond our audience with us, and that has the potential for better attendance at concerts. It also increases the likelyhood of financial support from them. It’s a win-win for everyone. Go Baltimore.

Tim Smith’s article in the Baltimore Sun on September 23 is below.



SEPTEMBER 23, 2010

Why ‘Rusty Musicians’ and other outreach projects matter

A couple of images have stayed with me since the “Rusty Musicians” 
event offered by the Baltimore Symphony the other night at Meyerhoff Hall:

Phil Munds, the orchestra’s first-rate principal horn player, sharing 
the daunting solo in the finale of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” with his 
”rusty” stand-mate and giving her a hearty pat on the back when they 
were through it; BSO principal percussionist Chris Williams keeping a 
close eye on the “rusty” timpanist, helping him with cues and giving 
a thumbs up after a big, forceful moment in Brahms’ “Academic 
Festival” Overture.

That’s what this unusual project is all about — inspiring amateur 
players to take a stab at playing onstage with the pros, and 
encouraging the pros to reach out and encourage them. (If you missed 
it, you might want to see my story about the “Rusty Musicians” at 
Meyerhoff; you’ll find a photo gallery and video, too.)

This is not what musicians sign on to when they join a big-time 
orchestra; they expect to be spending their time in the oh-so-professional realm of high art. They might do some teaching, and, 
yes, they’ll usually go along with some annual side-by-side 
performance with local students, in the sacred name of education (and 
the grants that can generate). But four hours of sitting with “rusty 
musicians”? Or spending a whole week doing that sort of thing and 
much more during a summer camp for amateurs? Isn’t that, well, 
demeaning, or, at the very least, distracting?

I have heard a couple BSO players suggest that Rusty Musicians and 
the BSO Academy (it debuted last June), cornerstones of music 
director Marin Alsop’s tenure so far, are certainly worthy, but have 
the danger of causing the orchestra to shift its primary, essential 
focus on achieving and maintaining the finest artistic quality. I 
wouldn’t be surprised if a fair number of BSO musicians share that 
concern, but I also suspect that most have come to embrace the point 
of trying fresh ways to connect with more and more folks in the community.

Orchestra industry studies have indicated that a considerable 
majority of audiences for classical concerts have studied an 
instrument at some point. Maybe they haven’t played in years; maybe 
they’re members of community bands or amateur chamber ensembles. 
Whatever the case, maybe they’d just love to see, hear and feel what 
it’s like to be onstage with a major orchestra, if only once in their 
lives. And maybe that experience will make them care more about music-making and music-makers than they had before. And maybe their 
families and friends will pick up on that re-charged enthusiasm. A 
pretty cool scenario, I’d say, and not really far-fetched.

All the angst over the audiences classical music doesn’t reach should 
not keep orchestras from trying to fire up the audiences classical 
music has. (If you said the same thing about newspapers and their 
readers, I’d be inclined to agree with you, but wouldn’t dare say so 

In my usual skeptical way, I would have thought that only 45 minutes onstage with Alsop zipping through a little Brahms and Stravinsky 
might be more frustrating than satisfying. But one look at the faces 
on the “rusties” pouring into the green room at the Meyerhoff after 
the first session spoke volumes — I’m talking super-smiling faces, 
the kind of cheeriness that, if harnessed, could power the night 
lights at Camden Yards. (With more than 250 amateurs turning out for 
the event, they were divided into four groups; the ensemble for each 
session with Alsop was about 60 percent rusties, 40 percent BSO 

It’s such a simple idea, really, this get-out-your-old-instruments- 
and-jam-with-us offer. And so uplifting. It’s precisely the kind of 
thing that more and more professional orchestras will need to 
consider doing if they want to be — in the catchword of the arts 
world today — relevant.



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Ramon Ricker

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