From murder capital to musical haven — how Baltimore is changing kids’ lives

The city’s orchestra is on tour, but it’s at home that it’s making a real difference (Published in The Times, August 24, 2018)

Lockerman-Bundy Elementary school in Baltimore (NYT)

“Mr Perry! Mr Perry! Is that the lady?” shouts a teenage boy holding a saxophone. “Is that the mayor?”

It is indeed. Catherine Pugh, the mayor of Baltimore, is standing about 4ft from the boy, while doing an excellent impression of not being able to hear the question bellowed from just behind her.

Pugh takes her position behind an upturned orange plastic pail, along with an ensemble of school-age drummers and musicians fanned across the steps of the War Memorial, a neoclassical hulk occupying two entire blocks facing Baltimore City Hall. This “bucket band” crashes into a thunderous original composition called One Baltimore, a musical call for healing written after the 2015 riots that followed local man Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.

“One Baltimore!” the children chant as Brian Prechtl, the charismatic percussion powerhouse of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), stalks the steps, sticks in hand, calling on the assembled guests, donors and visiting dignitaries to join in. “One Baltimore!” we yell in response, sweating profusely in the early summer heatwave. The tenth-anniversary OrchKids celebration concert has begun.

Established in 2008, OrchKids is a free after-school music programme set up by the BSO’s music director, Marin Alsop, who this month is taking the orchestra to the Edinburgh International Festival, the BBC Proms, and the National Concert Hall in Dublin. It started with 30 children in one school; in those days Alsop was sometimes found on hands and knees in the playground, clearing rubbish and used needles. “We just opened up the trunk and took out some violins,” she recalls. “Then you realise, ‘These kids haven’t had anything proper to eat.’ So then it’s, ‘In that case, how can we get somebody to donate meals?’ ”

“We just opened up the trunk and took out some violins,” she recalls. “Then you realise, ‘These kids haven’t had anything proper to eat.’ So then it’s, ‘In that case, how can we get somebody to donate meals?’ ”

Admired as the BSO is, its home city only tends to make headlines outside its home state of Maryland on account of its high levels of violent crime. As viewers of the Baltimore-set television series The Wire will be aware, the city is notorious for drugs, corruption and killing. Along with Detroit, Baltimore is one of the few American cities with a shrinking population; rows of abandoned houses with boarded-up windows are visible from the train as we arrive and trundle through the outskirts.

Baltimore is often seen as the murder capital of America. In 2017 the city set a per-capita homicide record of 56 killings for every 100,000 people — the highest among the US’s 50 largest cities. It’s a fact noted with grim irony on souvenir mugs and caps in local gift shops, adorned with the brightly coloured slogan “Baltimore — There’s More Than Murder Here”.

Marin Alsop conducting members of the BSO and OrchKids at the Baltimore Ravens Thanksgiving Day game

“The news about our city is sometimes very challenging,” says the BSO president and chief executive, Peter Kjome, adding that the upcoming tour to Britain and Ireland is an opportunity for the BSO to be a “cultural ambassador” and present a different side of the city.

Inside the War Memorial, Alsop is whipping up the crowd before the main concert, outlining her vision to the families, supporters and philanthropists in the audience. People don’t like her making commitments such as this, she explains, but she wants to see the programme reach 5,000 young people in five years, then “10,000 in ten!”

I talk to two of the young people who have been part of the programme since the beginning. They are charming and engaging: Desha Banks, 17, talks about how she would like to be a paediatrician, but “never give up music”. She says the programme gives young people something to do other than hang about on the streets. “Music was my way out,” she adds with a grin.

This sentiment is echoed by Asia Palmer, also 17, who in 2013 went to the White House to accept an award on behalf of OrchKids from Michelle Obama. “Music became a lifestyle,” she says when asked how the programme helped her. “There’s a lot of drugs in Baltimore — you want to keep kids off the streets. This is a safe place for kids and families.”

Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School (NYT)

Ten years on, OrchKids now works with 1,300 students in eight schools across the city. “Most communities where we work are underserved and under-resourced, and most of the students we work with are of colour,” says the programme’s executive director, Raquel Whiting Gilmer. “At one of our really challenged schools, Booker T Washington, there was a lockdown yesterday because someone was shooting with a rifle in the neighbourhood. This is the second lockdown in three weeks. At one school.

“I think our kids deal with more before they get out of bed than a lot of people deal with their whole lifetime,” she says. “And you’ll see that they don’t let it stop them.”

“At one of our really challenged schools, Booker T Washington, there was a lockdown yesterday because someone was shooting with a rifle in the neighbourhood. This is the second lockdown in three weeks. At one school.”

As promised, the children give their tenth-anniversary performance everything they’ve got. Alsop conducts the finale, leading an enormous ensemble of 250 young musicians, including a children’s choir, in a stirring mash-up of Ode to Joy with Estelle’s pop hit Conqueror. As the audience is brought to its feet, many people seem to have something in their eye.

The next day I visit Alsop in her dressing room deep inside the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, after an afternoon rehearsal. She says that when she first arrived in Baltimore, with its 65 per cent African-American population, there was only one black musician in her orchestra. Deciding that the BSO was not connected enough to its city, she set up OrchKids as a way of engaging and supporting the local community. “We try to provide a safety net in that difficult time between 3 and 6pm, when kids get into trouble,” she says before joking: “Some of them can now actually play well, too.”

The BSO’s overseas tour is its first for 13 years. It will perform at the Edinburgh Festival for two nights, including a celebration on the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. Bernstein-inspired concerts follow in London for the Proms and in Dublin. It is joined by the violinist Nicola Benedetti and the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet on different nights in Edinburgh, with Benedetti also in Dublin and Thibaudet at the Royal Albert Hall. All are debuts for the orchestra, although not, of course, for Alsop, who has conducted orchestras across the world and was famously the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms in 2013.

“I’ve never toured internationally with this orchestra,” Alsop says, clearly excited. “They’re the best-kept secret in the major orchestras. And for the Bernstein centenary… well, to do that without an American orchestra just wouldn’t feel right.”

Alsop saw the American composer conduct when she was nine years old, an experience that made her decide to become a conductor herself. In her early thirties she became a student and protégé of Bernstein’s. “We had some good laughs,” she recalls. “He didn’t have a sense of personal space! It was like when you go to somebody’s house and they have a huge puppy . . . licking your face, paws up. It was endearing and very funny.”

Alsop says that, although Bernstein was “very liberated in his thinking”, he found it odd to have a female student. (More than ten years after her appointment, Alsop is still the only female conductor leading a major North American orchestra.) “Once he was in the audience and I finished,” she says. “Usually he’d come bounding up, but this time he was just sitting there. I went out and said, ‘Maestro, is everything all right?’ I thought maybe he wasn’t happy. He said, ‘I can’t figure it out. When I close my eyes, I can’t tell you’re a woman.’ I said, ‘Well, you can keep your eyes closed!’ ”

Bernstein was active politically, even becoming the subject of an infamously savage takedown of “radical chic” in 1970 by the American journalist Tom Wolfe (“That Party At Lenny’s” in New York magazine), in which Wolfe gained access to a fundraiser at Bernstein’s upscale New York apartment for radical group the Black Panthers. Alsop thinks Bernstein would have been “extremely vocal” about our present political situation: “I think he would have been particularly troubled by the challenges and worries about the refugee crisis,” she says. Alsop will nod to his activism at the Proms with his composition Slava! “that he did for Rostropovich, it’s subtitled A Political Overture. Then The Age of Anxiety, [Bernstein’s] second symphony, which explores the emotions surrounding the Second World War.”

As she prepares to celebrate her former mentor’s centenary, I wonder if she was as influenced by his social outlook as much as she was by his musicianship in becoming a conductor. “In hindsight, there’s some influence,” she replies. “His idea of trying to open the doors of the concert hall wide open, and create a sense of inclusion for all people . . . I was extremely impressed with that. Music is what connects us as human beings.”

“I do see this programme has made a difference to these kids,” says Alsop, reflecting on the success of her youth outreach programme. “It’s made a difference to their parents and to the community. And I know that, for these 1,300 kids, it’s probably helped them avoid some trials and tribulations — the violence is the most upsetting part.

“I don’t pretend OrchKids will cure the issues, but I hope that, maybe ten years from now, people will say, ‘Baltimore, that’s where all those kids are playing fantastic instruments,’ instead of, ‘That’s where everybody kills each other.’ ”