Tuesday, August 24, 2010


This past weekend I participated in a musical event that raised a lot of wistful, nostalgic feelings.

I came home one day earlier this summer to find a message on our answering machine about a concert that would take place on August 21 at the Kennedy Center in the Concert Hall to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the DC Youth Orchestra Program, and they wanted to know if I could play. I am an alum -- enrolled in 1970 and emerged in 1974. Before then, I hadn't been connected with sports or clubs or summer camps (I don't really count a forgettable couple of years in Girl Scouts, where we met in a church basement and did craft projects and brought snacks from home), and our family didn't belong to any organized religious group, so this was my first involvement with a group activity that was both voluntary and demanding, and one that involved music. My piano lessons, as I've mentioned, were unconnected with the larger musical world, so DCYO was the place I learned some of the elements of performing.

The program was free to anyone, with no restriction on the basis of residence; you could sign up no matter where you lived or what school you attended. If kids needed instruments, they were provided at no charge. (In later years, the program started charging a modest tuition fee, but that was after my time there.) I started in prep classes, then quickly moved through Elementary and Junior orchestras, and a year or so after I started, I was promoted to the DC Youth Orchestra itself. I traveled across town to Coolidge High School, in northwest DC, on Saturday mornings and one evening a week during the school year (various parents arranged a carpool with kids from our neighborhood, and later on I felt very grownup about taking the bus), and daily during some hot, sweaty summers, for four years. The orchestra has also traveled overseas many times, and I went with it to the Von Karajan Festival in Berlin in 1972 and to Scotland and London in 1974.

I was NOT a star. I was a reliably okay, middle-of-the-section player and was not one of the notables for my personality, either. But I must have made a decent impression, because in the early 1980s, I returned to the program as a teacher and worked there for several years, until I decided that I needed my Saturday mornings back. And then in 1989, they asked me to go on a trip to Spain with a chamber orchestra, which of course I did. (Lest you think this involved a lot of glamor, however, you have to know that our accommodations were in a dorm with no air conditioning, sleeping on little cots, with a shared bathroom and continental breakfasts, and then long rides on a bus, also not air conditioned. But it was still fun. The kids were all really bright, great travelers and performers.)

Last year, NPR did a story on the orchestra. This definitely jibes with my memories:

Success on a Shoestring

The real kicker about this program is how, deceptively blandly, it disregarded the social canards of this town. Back in 1960 when the program was founded, DC was a city segregated by race and class, and the idea of offering classical music training to the have-nots, and bringing together children from all groups to learn music to the same standards as the privileged, was a radical one. Rich white kids from Bethesda sat next to poor black kids from Southeast, and no one made a big deal over it except for the press, when a reporter would poke his or her head in to observe.

Over the years the program was attacked from all sides. I remember in the 1970s a loony DC Public Schools superintendent who railed against providing funding for a program that taught black kids "white" music. But somehow, the program managed to limp along on the financial equivalent of band-aids, duct tape, and chewing gum. The physical plant was decrepit even back then, and I'm surprised Coolidge High School hasn't collapsed on its own already. (A few weeks ago, they finally moved to new digs at the renovated Eastern High School on the other side of town. Though they desperately need a better building, there are a lot of happy memories in the old place, and I hope the new neighborhood is as hospitable as the old one was -- it's a bit sketchier over there.)

Preparation for the concert on the 21st was three three-hour rehearsals at the Kennedy Center -- and a memory lane trip, seeing people I hadn't seen in many years (including one guy I went to junior high with!). For some strange reason, everyone looked 40 years older than I remembered them looking.

There was a one-hour time restriction on the concert, so they programmed only a few short works: after "The Star-Spangled Banner" (which opened with a group of young violin students playing the tune without accompaniment) came Wagner's overture to Die Meistersinger, an arrangement of Gershwin's "Summertime," a new piece by a former orchestra member (John Christopher Wineglass's "Portrait in Themes"), the Andante from Hansen's Symphony No. 2, and "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Somehow the organizers wrangled the services of Marvin Hamlisch as MC and to conduct the Gershwin. The founder and longtime conductor and music director of the program, Lyn McLain, who retired in 2006 (and who is now 82 years old -- unbelievable), conducted the Hansen. Even though I was not in the inner circle back in the day and so never was chummy with him, Lyn was as familiar to me as a relative, a feeling I'm sure was shared by many of those who participated in this event. He has grown rather frail and is having trouble with his eyesight these days, but he rehearsed his piece meticulously and with his familiar down-to-earth demeanor of a jazz band leader (with wry whispers around the orchestra of, "He's still the same!").

The orchestra was excellent. There were so many great players there, and together we produced a magnificent sound. There's a video of the whole thing here (though unfortunately, the sound quality is terrible):

DC Youth Orchestra reunion concert (video)

Although I enjoyed playing in a large, very good orchestra for the first time in a long time, I was reminded of why it's not my favorite thing, either. Lost in the middle of a cello section, you can't hear yourself, and you have no say in how things are done or what musical decisions are made. Because this was an extremely short-term situation, these conditions didn't bother me, but I knew that for the long term, they would be onerous. However, this was altogether a stimulating experience, both from the musical standpoint and because it reconnected me with parts of my past.

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