How I became a (week-long) Member of the Baltimore Symphony
Meredith Laing for Making Music Magazine September/October 2010
When I finished my master's degree in violin performance in 2009, I never would have imagined that just a little over a year later, I would be performing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. First, because the BSO, as it's familiarly known, is one of only 17 full-time professional symphony orchestras in the country--meaning the competition to win a coveted seat is extremely high. Spots rarely open, and when one does, there might be hundreds of hopefuls auditioning. Second, because following graduation, I found a happy balance writing for Making Music and maintaining a busy freelance performing career.
As it turned out, Making Music actually led me to a week-long adventure playing with one of the country's great orchestras.
When Making Music staff first heard about the brand new BSO Academy, a summer program in which talented amateurs perform alongside BSO members, we knew it was something we wanted to share with readers. But when I called the BSO to let them know about our plans for an article, I got much more than I had bargained for. "We'd like to take it a step further and actually have you participate, if you'd like to," the BSO Academy's coordinator told me. Would I like to spend a week learning from, rehearsing with, and performing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra? Absolutely!
That was the exact same reaction oboist Mary Padilla, 46, had when she first learned about the BSO Academy. Padilla, a clinical pathologist from Woodbrige, Virginia, plays regularly with community orchestras, but first performed with the BSO in what was called the Rusty Musicians concert in February 2010. The side-by-side concert was a smaller-scale, "test version" of the BSO Academy. "Just having 40 minutes to play with the BSO in the Rusty Musicians concert was amazing," Padilla says. "So when I heard about the BSO Academy, I thought: Wow, a whole week to feel how I felt in that 40 minutes? Yeah, I'll sign up for that in a heartbeat."
BSO Academy participants arrived in Baltimore on a very hot Sunday afternoon in June, welcomed with a friendly orientation, a wonderful dinner, and a cocktail hour. But the next day, it was time to get down to business.
Each morning, both the BSO Academy participants and BSO members assembled on the stage of the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for intense rehearsals led by Maestro Marin Alsop. For two-and-a-half hours, we worked to polish two professional-level pieces from the orchestral repertoire--Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances and Ottorino Respighi's Pines of Rome--in preparation for a final concert at the end of the week.
Alsop, who in 2007 became the first female music director of a major American orchestra, circled her baton to stop us every so often, imparting her expert advice or clarifying her interpretation of the music. "Make sure you're not early after the rest--really, you can't be too late on that figure," she would instruct. "Now, let's try the spot with the pizzicato. We'll go from rehearsal marking two, directly. Thanks."
She wasn't the only one with words of wisdom; seating in the orchestra was arranged so that each BSO Academy participant was next to a BSO member, who could answer questions and offer tips. Even as a professional musician, it was a huge help to have my stand partner suggesting different fingerings that I could use.
Percussionist Richard Gillam, 43, who holds a music degree from the Eastman School of Music, but changed career paths to become a software engineer at IBM, says that he learned a great deal from the three BSO percussionists in the section. "These three guys really want the two of us [Academy percussionists] to do a good job," he remarked to me one afternoon. "And not just because they want the performance to be decent, but for our own sake, too--because they think that we can."
During the week, I noticed a transformation from nervousness to complete confidence; progress and learning occurred, not only in the morning's orchestra rehearsals, but throughout each day. Even during lunch in the symphony hall lobby, conversations never strayed far from music. We discussed the background of composer Ottorino Respighi, reflected on the English horn solo that was played excellently during rehearsal, or offered advice to a fellow participant who had questions about a new technique.
After lunch, we would break off and head to various enrichment courses, which included a wind seminar on breathing techniques, a string workshop on bowing techniques, a sight-reading session, and many others. (One of the highlights for me was the injury care and prevention class, where I got an amazing massage from a physical therapist!)
Classes went up until six or seven o'clock each evening, but for some participants who had added "extras" onto their program, the days continued even longer. The members of seven different chamber music ensembles--with instrumentations ranging from a string trio to a woodwind quintet--rehearsed in the evenings, building up to an informal concert on Friday. Each group was either coached by a BSO member or had a BSO member playing in the ensemble.
Participants could also elect to take private lessons, something that Padilla found especially valuable. "I learned techniques that I'm going to practice when I get home--things I was originally taught badly, or never taught at all," she says. "I learned that my fingers are too far from the keys. It's not something I can fix this week, but now I know the steps I need to take to work on it."
By Saturday afternoon, concert time, we were ready to put everything we had worked on throughout the week to the test. The concert hall was full with friends and relatives of the BSO Academy participants, as well as specially invited Baltimore Symphony Orchestra donors. Though the audience looked the same as it would for any other BSO performance, the group on stage was far from typical. The greatly expanded orchestra was made up of, not just professional musicians, but doctors, scientists, teachers--people who had taken many different career paths, but could now live out their dreams of playing a professional-level orchestra concert.
"I started coming to BSO concerts in 1992, and ever since then, it's been a life dream for me to play with them in a concert," says Timothy Topowski, 51, who teaches biomechanics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, when he's not playing violin and fiddle. "I would always tell my wife, 'They could put me in the way back of the second violins--even behind the piano. I'd just love to do one concert with the BSO in my life.' And here I am!" he added, telling me he had invited about 60 friends to come and witness the big moment. (Topowski wasn't seated in the very back of the orchestra, either--for one piece, he was up front, right next to the concertmaster!)
After an exciting concert, the enthusiastic applause and cheers from the audience assured us that we had graduated with honors from the BSO Academy. But our experiences from the week are sure to stick with us long after our exit from the stage--exactly what Marin Alsop envisioned when she came up with the idea for the program. "I'm hoping everybody feels that they got a lot of good, useful information and tools to go back and practice, and to think about music differently," Alsop told me before a rehearsal one morning. "I hope people feel really energized to go back to their regular lives with a renewed enthusiasm for this passion that they have about music."
I know that I did--I came home ready to start taking auditions for part-time professional orchestras.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
Leadership support for the BSO Academy in 2010 through 2015 is generously provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.