I traveled down to Baltimore last week to spend some time with the Baltimore Symphony’s OrchKids program and experience their final concert for this academic year — their Spring Bash.
I first observed the OrchKids program, the BSO’s after-school intensive El Sistema program, in 2010 when they were in their second year at the Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School. The Artistic Director of OrchKids, Dan Trahey, has been urging me to come back to see how they’ve grown, and how accomplished the older kids are.
I was truly impressed. First of all, OrchKids is now involved in four schools, and Dan hopes to expand to a middle school next year. They now have over 30 teaching artists working with the kids, and over 40 employees altogether. All but one of the original teaching artists are still involved in the program. And the kids are thriving.
I’ll be writing a Spotlight on orchestral El Sistema programs, featuring four orchestras of different sizes: Baltimore, Hartford, Waterbury (CT) and Alexandria (VA), so I’ll save the details for then. But I want to share some of the amazing enthusiasm I experienced at the Spring Bash concert they presented on Friday, May 17.
First, the concert was held in a lovely auditorium at Mary Ann Winterling Elementary School, just a couple blocks from the Lockerman-Bundy school. Dan told me that the auditorium had been unused for decades, was full of junk and in total disarray. The BSO spent over $5,000 to clear out the mess, fix the seats and stage, and put in AC (it would get to be over 100 degrees in there). The result is just wonderful. Nothing fancy — a typical elementary school auditorium — but to think it went unused for so many years and now enables families to share in the pride of their children.
I observed the rehearsal on Thursday, which was semi-controlled chaos, and the concert on Friday, which went off without a hitch worth mentioning. It lasted almost two hours because there were so many students playing so many different instruments.
BSO percussionist Brian Prechtl started off with his bucket band, sitting on orange Home Depot buckets and playing on another. The older kids played so enthusiastically that I had to put in my orchestral ear plugs! Then Brian introduced the little ones — he was as excited as they were, for it was their first public performance.
The concert then presented the young students’ choir (the Ms. Marin Choir), then three harpists, recorders, clarinets & saxophones, flutes, and a woodwind ensemble and a brass ensemble.
This was followed by the string players — an ensemble with the little kids, the chamber orchestra playing Strauss’ Radetzky March and Gliere’s Russian Sailor’s Dance, and the OrchKids Orchestra, involving everyone who plays an instrument. The little kids played open strings or they blew the few notes they knew on their instruments, and the older kids carried the pieces.
Finally, the Performance Choir and the OrchKids Choir closed the evening’s performance. Dion Cullingham, the choir director, had taught the kids to sign “Love in Any Language” — this was such a moving sight. El Sistema is known for including deaf children in their choirs.
Check back soon for an in-depth look at how orchestras are creating vibrant, life-changing El Sistema programs in their communities.
And CONGRATULATIONS to everyone at OrchKids for a wonderful season and an inspiring closing concert. I’ll be at the Hartford Symphony’s City Music closing concert next Monday, June 3.