Ann Drinan  

Baltimore Symphony Performs "OrchKids Nation"

Ann Drinan
June 13, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

On Thursday, March 31 and Sunday, April 3, 2019 the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented a subscription concert at Meyerhoff Hall featuring a new work for their OrchKids students, an intensive in- and after-school program at two elementary schools in the troubled West Baltimore neighborhood. The kids, all 120 of them, wore their OrchKids T-shirts and played instruments, banged on buckets in the Bucket Band, or sang in the choir. But most importantly, they played with the BSO musicians in a piece written especially for them by NJ-based composer David Rimelis. I'm sure for many of the young performers, it was the experience of their young lives.

- Ann Drinan

The Baltimore Symphony recently did something that I’d wager has never been done before in the history of American orchestras – they invited their young students from an inner-city school program to perform on a subscription series concert.

The program is called OrchKids, and was started by BSO Music Director Marin Alsop and Dan Trahey, Artistic Director of OrchKids, in 2008. I spent a few days with the OrchKids program in April 2010, and wrote a detailed article for Polyphonic describing what the program does with the kids on a daily basis.

What intrigues me about this concert is that the kids were front-and-center part of a regular subscription concert at Meyerhoff Hall, not at a Family concert or a concert where students are bused in to the symphony’s hall in the morning. This was two regular weekend subscription concerts; the program included Corigliano's Pied Piper Fantasy and Prokofiev's Cinderella.

Marin Alsop and the OrchKids Marin Alsop and the OrchKids instrumentalists (Click to enlarge.)

OrchKids was inspired by El Sistema, the Venezuelan orchestral training program that produced Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and has changed the lives of so many young people in Venezuela and elsewhere. El Sistema USA is helping American orchestras, cities and conservatories to create similar programs in the US.

Baltimore’s program began at the Harriet Tubman Elementary School and moved to the Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School in West Baltimore in the fall of 2009. The students participating in OrchKids have intensive music instruction from 3:30 to 6:15 four days a week, with occasional Saturday activities. All the students in the school receive music instruction during their normal school hours.

For the BSO concert, the kids played a piece called OrchKids Nation, composed by David Rimelis, who has been writing music for Marin Alsop for thirty years, starting with her jazz string quartet String Fever. He was involved with The Concordia Ensemble’s educational programs in NY, and wrote for the Colorado Orchestra when Ms. Alsop was in Denver.

To create OrchKids Nation, David went to Baltimore 4-5 times to watch the kids, speak with their teachers, and come up with a plan. He decided that this would be a composition for the kids, with the orchestra as the accompaniment. He told me that he didn’t want the orchestra to play for more than 8 measures without the kids being involved.

Marin Alsop and the OrchKids Marin Alsop and the OrchKids choir led by Molly Peterson (Click to enlarge.)

But a serious compositional problem arose: identifying which notes the kids knew how to play, given that some were playing trumpet or trombone, others flute or clarinet, and others violin or cello. And the group had some 3rd year kids who can play pretty well mixed in with the 1st year kids who have just started. The common ground was D and G, and maybe an A. According to Dan Trahey, the kids were all playing slightly different parts, written by Dan and Nick Skinner (the OrchKids Site Manager), and based on David’s original composition, that reflected what each student was able to play. None of the kids had been playing longer than 18 months!

The piece was written to feature the vocal and instrumental talents of the OrchKids; the lyrics (see the last page) were taken from testimonials written by the students in the program. They wrote on topics such as their favorite instrument, how the music makes them feel, and what they like about the OrchKids program.

To quote composer Rimelis, “The music of the first section is centered around the dance rhythms of the OrchKids Bucket Band [taught by BSO percussionist Brian Prechtl] and drums, coupled with the BSO orchestra percussion. On top of the rhythms, the students and professional musicians engage in lively musical conversations. The musical interplay is punctuated by the OrchKids’ rap, and a vocal call and response section. The middle section features the student string and mallet instrument ostinatos with soft vocal sounds weaving in and out. These elements, combined with the orchestral background, create a musical tapestry that builds to the first climax featuring the OrchKids drummers and both orchestras. In the last section the music recedes and the choir enters, softly singing the OrchKids theme. They are joined by the entire OrchKids ensemble singing. The BSO enters and takes the piece to its final climax. OrchKids Nation is approximately 9 minutes in duration.”

Here's a link to Tim Smith's blog page (Baltimore Sun), which has a video of an OrchKids Nation rehearsal.

David Rimelis took any phrase he thought was interesting or insightful, and weaved all of them into lyrics. The basic message is “We’re OrchKids and we’re making music.” He included a little rap: “We got a tuba and a trumpet and a double bass/ We fill the school full of music – it’s an awesome place / we wanna play…” to make it more fun for the kids.

Marin Alsop and the OrchKids Marin Alsop and OrchKids, with Hana Morford offering encouragement (Click to enlarge.)

David said that he knew what he was getting into when he wrote the piece. Part of it is the performance; the other part is all the time it takes to prepare the piece. “I wanted the kids to get that the music will always be there for them. Part of this was learning and internalizing the words and the idea. As Dan [Trahey] keeps saying, these kids aren’t going to go on to play in the BSO – maybe one out of a thousand might – but if they go on to internalize the music and realize how important it is to make their life whole, the job is done. The kids were excited – they didn’t sing as loud as I had hoped, but they put out a lot of energy.”

I asked David about the reactions he got from the BSO musicians. He said that some thought it was really fun – there was a lot of interaction with the percussion section. He was trying to get them to follow the kids. But it wasn’t about the BSO – it was about the orchestra supporting the kids.

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