Read this great testimonial from 2012 Rusty Musician Bruce Burgess:
The Best Seat in the House
By Bruce Burgess
The downbeat came swiftly. Marin’s baton cut through the air instantly slicing my confidence into tiny pieces. The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s sixth is in 5/4, but I didn’t see five beats being counted, just indistinct but vibrant musical expression emanating from the podium. I had many measures of rest ahead, but what was the count? Panic set in. I leaned toward my “pro” for reassurance. Before he could respond, BSO music director Marin Alsop mercifully lowered her baton for a restart as she offered guidance to the string section.
This is Rusty Musicians, an outreach program of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conceived by Marin Alsop in 2010 as a way “to attract new audiences through participatory opportunities for engagement as well as to enhance the BSO’s position as an educational and social community resource.”
The “rusties,” as successful applicants call themselves, are non-professional adult instrumentalists and vocalists whose career paths have taken them in directions other than that of a professional musician. For one brief and fleeting evening, participants become members of the BSO, perform alongside regular members of the world-class orchestra under the direction of Maestra Alsop, and refer to the experience as “breathtaking,” “spectacular” and “life-changing.” 2012 also marks the first time in which Rusty singers have been invited to participate in the experience, performing alongside the professional Heritage Signature Chorale with the BSO.
This year’s performance, really a “reading” followed by a run-through for an audience consisting primarily of family and friends, included two movements of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, and selections for orchestra and members of the Rusty Singers and the Heritage Signature Chorale from four different Verdi operas.
We rusties received our parts weeks ago via email from BSO Education Associate Hana Morford, our main contact with the orchestra. We practiced alone, transposed, and practiced again hoping not to disappoint ourselves or fellow musicians.
On Tuesday night, the dreams of the amateur players were fulfilled. More than 100 amateur instrumentalists and 38 singers took turns playing and singing with BSO regulars. The musicians came from 11 different states, and ranged in age from 24 to 81 with an average age of 50. Most, if not all, have experience performing with community orchestras or symphonic bands.
As a sophomore rustie, I admit to being both excited and glib about my return to the Meyerhoff. The second emotion was quickly checked within the first opening bars of music. Before that, however, I moved easily about the stage striking up conversations with other excited musicians before we found our seats. As if directed by an unseen cue, the permanent members of the BSO came on stage and heartily shook hands with familiar faces and introduced themselves to unfamiliar ones.
What drives veteran rusty musicians like Jeff Spector, a timpanist, to hop a plane in Colorado Springs, book a hotel room on Cathedral Street, play two 40-minute sessions with the BSO, and check out of his room at 4:00 a.m. for a fast dash back to Colorado? Or what motivates first time rusty oboe player Randall Reiss to load up a school van with half a dozen students in Hopewell, Virginia, and drive eight hours round-trip for the privilege of playing in the big leagues for less than an hour? Is it the opportunity to play music with the world’s best musicians, to fulfill a life-long ambition never realized, to check-off an item on a bucket list? The answers are yes, yes and yes. These and other explanations are freely given by teary-eyed rusties who complete and who are exhilarated by the experience.
Seated on stage, I found myself sandwiched between Rene Hernandez and Andy Balio, both principals in the trumpet section. Each, as well as every other pro, appeared genuinely happy to be there. Each offered inside tips on the fine points of orchestral playing. “Hold the quarter notes to their full value, it makes the eighth notes seem appropriately shorter,” advised Rene during the heroic third movement of the Tchaikovsky. “Push your tuning slide in on the lower notes, they’re typical flat. Pull the slide out for notes in the higher register, they’re usually sharp.” In response to a passage well performed, Andy raised his leg, the insider’s silent during-performance salute to a neighbor musician for a job well done.
My own personal musical career, or lack of one, is similar to that of other rusties. In my case, a well-meaning uncle who helped pay for college over 50 years ago said he’d help pay for a degree in engineering but not in music, convinced the latter would result in me “playing in a dive.” Himself an engineer, my obtaining a degree in architecture satisfied him that I would likely avoid the imagined dire outcome. It also set in motion a career course that led me away from aspiring to be an orchestral musician.
My first Rusty Musicians was in 2011. Arriving at the Meyerhoff on performance evening, I was overcome with emotion due to a strong former relationship to Baltimore city. I was born 3 blocks away in Maryland General Hospital. My maternal grandfather had a career as a freight agent for the B&O at Mt. Royal Station across the street from the Meyerhoff. My aunt and “that” uncle attended Mount Vernon Methodist Church just blocks away many years before. My parents, both Baltimoreans, had an infant son who died of malformed lungs before I arrived on the scene; “get him to blow a horn” they were advised by the doctor who suggested this as a remedy for recovery. In high school, I had a catastrophic bicycle accident with facial injuries that caused my trumpet teacher to predict “that boy will never play again.” The load was heavy. Yet, here I was, about to join the BSO, and subsequently, to participate in the 2012 BSO Academy, the eight-day summer orchestra camp for rustie graduates. I had arrived in spite of it all.
Marin restarted Tchaikovsky’s second movement. Rene calmed my nerves. I eased into the lyrical five-beat gait and relied on Marin’s direction. The repetitive, loping two-bar phrases restored my confidence as did Rene who whispered, “lean into the first beat, it’ll help.” I relaxed. I looked around and absorbed the sounds of the six bassoons, seven horns, seven trombones and seven double basses that surrounded the trumpet section. I was in the moment, fulfilling a dream and, not incidentally, enjoying the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from the best seat in the house, playing beautiful music on-stage in Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Bruce Burgess is principal trumpet in the Northern Neck Orchestra based in Kilmarnock, Virginia. His permanent residence is in Middlebury, Vermont and he is the son of Robert H. Burgess, bay historian, author and long-time contributor to the Sun Papers.