Orchestras Strengthening Ties to Their Communities

By Ann Meier Baker

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in foreground, two men dressed in black playing violins with other musicians in the background.

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is hosting a three-week festival to explore the theme of "home" with their community, performed by artists of diverse backgrounds. Photo by Rat Race

The first live orchestra I ever heard was the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra—my hometown orchestra. My mother was a public school music teacher and I was her concert-going companion. Each time we went to hear the orchestra, my mother would be sure to point out the associate principal trumpeter, Marie Speziale, who was one of the first women ever to play trumpet in a large-budget orchestra. Mom was always drawing my attention to women in leadership roles like this, hoping that I would aspire to that too, and she was very pleased when I won the principal clarinet chair in my high school orchestra.

We lived in the suburbs of Cincinnati during a time of deep segregation, so for these concerts, we would drive downtown, park in the orchestra’s parking garage, and walk down a long, enclosed, walkway that led us directly to a back entrance to Music Hall without having any contact with the community outside the hall before or after the concert.

While there still aren’t very many female trumpet players in orchestras, fast forward to today and thank goodness a lot has changed. In Cincinnati—after an extensive renovation of Music Hall and the redevelopment of the surrounding area—the concert-going experience has improved dramatically. Today people actually enter through the front door of the beautiful and historic concert hall after making their way through a park that combines classical music, mobile technology, and public spaces with a dancing musical fountain whose jets and lights move and react to the music being played. Instead of the orchestra being intentionally separated from the community like it was when I was a kid, now audience members are surrounded by multiple efforts to connect and to serve the broader Cincinnati community.

For me, this transformation at my hometown orchestra is a metaphor for the changes I perceive happening all across the country, and there are examples to be found in so many of the orchestra projects that are funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

For example, the Richmond Symphony’s Big Tent Festivals take the orchestra out in the community to engage new audiences who do not traditionally attend regular concerts. And, because an important tenet of the festivals is to leave a lasting benefit in each community, the Richmond Symphony has partnered with the public school system to raise the dollars needed to purchase 363 musical instruments so far, plus band uniforms and choir apparel; and they’re are on track to raise enough to enable all 32 Richmond elementary and middle schools to teach student orchestras.

And the Arts Endowment supports Houston Symphony’s Community-Embedded Musicians program, where symphony musicians are trained as teaching artists to lead programs in neighborhood centers and schools, and to also provide year-long instrumental coaching, student performance opportunities, and activities in children's hospitals.

A project we supported for the National Symphony Orchestra includes a co-commission by the orchestra and the National Geographic Society, which was inspired by an Arctic expedition that the composer, Lera Auerbach, took with a marine ecologist who is the National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence.

The Oregon Symphony’s “Sounds of Home” series features a new work that explores homelessness, which in addition to performances in the concert hall includes performances in homeless shelters, healthcare facilities, and community centers.

Another project focused on the concept of home comes from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s three-week festival composed and performed by artists of diverse backgrounds, including new works about the experience of Filipino immigrants, and another about growing up in Syria in the 1980s.

These and many other initiatives are changing and strengthening the role of orchestras, and I applaud the creative partnerships and the impulse to go all-in in service to the community. Just like the transformation of the concert-going experience in my hometown of Cincinnati, orchestras across the country have flung open the front door and are inviting everyone in!

Excerpted from a speech given to the League of American Orchestras Conference in Nashville, TN on June 3, 2019.