BALTIMORE – Upbeat rhythms and jazzy drums from 1920s composer James P. Johnson pulsated through the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on a warm Thursday morning. With Maestra Marin Alsop conducting, the music juked and jived and the horns blared.
In the audience, 320 students from St. Frances Academy – the entire student body of the venerable East Baltimore school – took it all in along with a few hundred other students from area schools being exposed, some for the first time, to a live orchestra performance.
“It was a cultural experience,” said Nicholas Brown, a student at St. Frances. “I don’t get to go to things like that so when I do I like to take advantage of it.”
The students came to the Meyerhoff through a partnership between St. Frances and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to revitalize the inner city school’s dying music program.
St. Frances plans to start a marching band, a music appreciation course and a choir class for next year. It also plans to have a full-time music teacher to head the program.
The plan is to have BSO donate instruments and have members and even Alsop teach some of the courses occasionally.
At a press conference earlier this week, called to unveil the BSO program for the year, Alsop said she believes strongly that the arts belong in schools.
“We are making a connection with schools, but we can never replace the music teacher,” Alsop said. “I think the arts are the way for a great America.”
Later at the performance, the music was all about dance.
The orchestra played African American composer Johnson’s compositions Charleston and Victory Stride with and upbeat tempo evoking the feel of a 1920s dance hall.
The musicians also played a slow and sultry tango and the West Side Story Symphonic Dances. The latter featured intense moments with soaring violins and music that tiptoed as the violinists plucked the strings with their fingers.
But instead of dancing in the aisles, many students found the music relaxing, some even to the point of taking a nap.
“It gave me a tranquil kind of feeling, very relaxing,” said Danielle Branche who wants to be a dancer. “It’s a soothing type of music to listen to, but it’s not music to listen to on a regular basis.”
But Savion Glover, the famous tap dancer, came on the stage, the students went wild with applause. “I liked the tap dancing and how it went with the music,” said Barrett Weems. “The tap dancing woke me up.”
Some students said they liked the experience but could not relate to the music.
“I liked it, but some parts were boring,” said Tania Waters. “I usually listen to rap and rhythm and blues. I wouldn’t go again, I can’t relate to classical music.”
Although she is not interested in classical music, she says she looks forward to the new music program at St. Frances and would like to start playing the baritone horn and learn to play the flute.
The school has a rich history that dates back to 1828 when Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, a Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) refugee founded the school. The school’s mission was to educate “girls of color.”
The school was an orphanage from 1828 until about 1915 when it became a boarding school. In the 1920s upper middle class African Americans and Hispanics sent their daughters to the “finishing school” until the late 1960s when enrollment started to drop because of desegregation. In 1976 the school began accepting boys.
Photos and framed documents line the hallways of the oldest part of the school complex built in 1870. Others are photos of the girls over the decades. One photo shows an all girls’ marching band sitting on the steps of the school in the 1940s.
The school’s music program reached its peak in the 1940s and 1950s with a band of about 40 girls out of about 100 students. The school also had a glee club in the 1960s.
But the music program died when the school opened to boys.
Now the school only has a gospel choir as an after – school activity, and African-drumming as part of a boy’s life-skills class.
However, this does not stop some students from writing music on their own time.
Raizel Benn plays the piano in the main entrance of the school everyday on her lunch period and sometimes before school. The junior had inconsistent piano classes throughout her youth. She plays by ear and cannot read music, but this does not stop her from writing songs.
That day after the visit to the orchestra she was on the piano again.
“I didn’t have the patience to learn music, but if you play by ear it’s so much better because it sounds so much better and feels so much better.”
Benn said she is excited about the band for next year.
But the school’s music program was not the only thing to change since it was a boarding school. Now vacant lots and boarded up buildings surround it. The school had to paint a mural on a nearby building’s wall to cover up profane graffiti.
Most of the students come from low-income families, are raised by grandparents or have lived in the streets.
“We have so many kids that have witnessed violence or have been impacted by drugs and some of the parents have been incarcerated,” said Tom Nealis, director of advancement for the school. “We need some curricular programs where kids can latch on to something that they have a talent for. Even if there are a few kids that learn an instrument it could change their life dramatically considering where they come from.”
Jamal Brunson, a senior at the school agreed and said the experience of the orchestra was worth seeing again. “I liked the music because it was out of my element,” he said. “I don’t listen to it all the time, but it was nice to be there instead of listening to it on the radio.”