Every Chair in This Temporary Orchestra Holds a Story
By Daniel J. Wakin, The New York Times
July 13, 2012
BALTIMORE — The judge’s assistant who practices her viola in a courthouse jury room. The retired neurosurgeon who once flew surveillance flights for the United States Navy and who took up the clarinet at 63. The accountant who began oboe lessons to connect with her severely disabled daughter.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra brought together these musicians and others — a total of 104 amateurs of startling variety — last month for a weeklong fantasy camp of lessons, rehearsals, master classes and, finally, a concert at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
It was a musically enthusiastic, even obsessive, bunch. Most spend countless hours a week practicing and playing in wind bands or community orchestras or chamber groups, in many cases more than one. It’s an older group. Many returned to music with fervor in retirement or in homes recently emptied of growing children. For some, music-making is the backbone of their social ties or an escape from the pressures of work.
“It’s these kinds of people who guarantee the interest in classical music,” said Andrew Balio, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter. “They do everything in life well,” he said. It’s also these kinds of people, the Baltimore Symphony hopes, who will buy more tickets and make more donations.
Among the participants in what the symphony calls the BSO Academy were Deborah Edge of Washington, a double-bassist and retired internist who works part time for an organization that helps the homeless. She stopped playing in college, then resumed in 1986, after a 20-year lapse.
Jane Hughes, an oboist who works for General Dynamics, and her husband, William Jokela, a bassoonist and former United States Army chaplain, of Annandale, Va., met in a community band, play in a trio and came to the academy for the first time last year to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. “This is our social life,” Mr. Jokela said.
William G. Young, an actuary from Norwalk, Conn., who practices clarinet an hour every evening, arranged to be in a chamber group with his brother-in-law, Harry Kaplan, a bassoonist and internist from Towson, Md. A half-dozen enthusiastic members of their family descended on Baltimore to hear them perform.
Matthew DeBeal of Laurel, Md., 25, one of the youngest players, spent his Saturdays as a youth studying violin at the preparatory division of the Peabody Institute, Baltimore’s conservatory, and now teaches string playing to middle schoolers in Howard County, Md. Mr. DeBeal, one of the more accomplished musicians among the participants, played solos in the academy’s final concert, on June 30.
Ann Marie Cordial took up the viola just three and a half years ago. A judge’s assistant at the Baltimore County Circuit Court, she practices in a jury room across a corridor from a cell.
“That’s part of your sentence,” she said. “You have to listen to me practice.” Her playing, she said, once helped bring a halt to a brawl that involved sheriff’s deputies and a defendant just sentenced to life in prison.
The retired neurosurgeon and cold-war-era Navy pilot, Edward Layne, 78, of Cockeysville, Md., took up the clarinet 15 years ago. He called his first moments on the stage at last year’s academy “one of the signal minutes” of his life.
“I looked around, and I couldn’t believe I was sitting there,” he said.
Barbara Bowen, an accountant from Reisterstown, Md., plays oboe in three community orchestras. She started the instrument at 10, played through college, then took a 22-year break.
“The reason I went back into music was the connection it gave with my daughter,” who has multiple disabilities, Ms. Bowen said. “If I could change my career tomorrow, I would be a music therapist.”
For many of the first-time participants, the unusually demanding repertory, the high skill level of some fellow campers and the unforgiving standards of a professional orchestra came as a bit of a shock. Gradually, over the course of the week, confidence grew. Technique sharpened. Coherent musical lines emerged.
The reality of it struck on Monday, June 25, when the campers gathered by instrument in rooms at the Baltimore School for the Arts for the first rehearsal before the Saturday concert, which featured works by Tchaikovsky, Elgar and Falla.
“I couldn’t get a proper note,” said Dianne Cooperman, 65, of Rockville, Md., an information technology consultant for federal agencies and a self-taught French horn player. “Everything sounded generally out of tune. I was a mess. I didn’t want to play anymore.”
Ms. Cooperman faced the extra challenge of a tremor from Parkinson’s disease, which causes her knee to shake. Horn players generally rest the instrument on the right thigh. Because of the tremor, Ms. Cooperman had to use an extra chair to support the instrument.
The next day’s master class, in which the members of the section were to play for the orchestra’s principal horn player, Philip Munds, did not go much better for her.
“It sounded like somebody was dying,” she said. “The more it came out bad, the more nervous I got.” Mr. Munds set her mind at ease and imparted a tip about hand position that brought immediate improvement.
As the week went on, Ms. Cooperman’s confidence improved. She timed her medicines better, so they took maximum effect at rehearsals. Her performance went up a notch. On Saturday afternoon she took a long nap before the concert, then went over her parts mentally without playing them on her horn.
Days later, she wrote about the experience in an e-mail: “I told myself: ‘I am incredibly lucky! Who else gets to attend five first-rate concerts in a row while sitting in the midst of the orchestra?’ All tremors, jitters and self-doubt were banished with that one realization.”
“And the good news is,” she added, “I definitely played all three pieces, especially the Falla, the best I had played them by far! I left no footprints as I walked off the stage that night. I was floating three feet off the floor.”
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
Leadership support for the BSO Academy in 2010 through 2015 is generously provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.