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November 15, 2012

Guest blogger/trumpeter reports on BSO's Rusty Musicians event

My thanks to Bruce Burgess for providing this colorful report from Tuesday's Rusty Musicians event, the Baltimore Symphony's popular outreach program where amateur players get to rub music stands with BSO pros in sessions conducted by Marin Alsop. -- TIM

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 typically 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."

... 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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:56 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


Thank you for this lovely peek into your experience with the BSO, and your personal musical history! I was in the clarinet section on Tuesday, and also had an amazing, amazing experience. We've just recently moved to Baltimore, and already the BSO has distinguished itself as an organization that I will happy to support.

Hats off to Maestra Alsop and the BSO for giving us Rusty Musicians this unique and priceless opportunity.

Thank you for sharing your wonderful story. I was in violin section for the Verdi next to Charles Underwood. I was so thrilled to be there I could barely say a word to that talented man, who graciously organized the music for us to play together. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and hooray for Maestra Alsop and the BSO for allowing us Rusty Musicians to play with them.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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