By Ralph E. Moore, Jr.,
Special to the AFRO
The Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore celebrated its 40th birthday on Sept. 17. A packed house greeted the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, as they celebrated the space that has helped shape the city and warm the hearts of its citizens.
The special guest for the occasion was Ledisi, the Grammy Award winning soul and jazz singer. She enchanted the audience with songs of her idol and musical great, Nina Simone.
Ledisi has a Grammy nominated album entitled, “Ledisi Sings Nina,” and sang classics and original pieces in Nina’s style for the Meyerhoff’s Gala audience.
Ledisi told the audience Simone’s work saved her life– not something she says lightly.
“It’s really an honest statement because–for me– that’s what Nina did. I was at home, twenty-something years old and ready to give up in the middle of the Bay Area. Back then they had radios,” Ledisi said, drawing a laugh from attendees. “I was sitting on the front porch in a white rocking chair. I was figuring out what to do with myself- I was depressed. How could I leave earth–basically, commit suicide?”
A jazz station was playing as she contemplated how she would end her life.
“There was this song that came on and it was Nina Simone. She said ‘trouble in mind, I’m blue, but I won’t be blue always,’” said Ledisi, intermittently breaking into Simone’s classic “Trouble in Mind,” while testifying to how the song renewed her spirit.
The artist also told how, as a product of public school music programs, she longed to lead her school’s morning program, which included a special student singing “Here Comes the Sun” at the top of the school day. She performed the song for the audience, putting a glowing inner child on display.
Other numbers included Simone’s renditions of “Baltimore,” “I Put a Spell on You,” and “I’m Feeling Good.”
It was a special night in so many ways: the building’s 40th birthday, having opened Sept. 16, 1982, the orchestra’s inaugural concert of the 2022-23 season and the announcement of the coming of diversity.
The joyful sounds of the day met with the promised coming of Mr. Jonathon Heyward, a young African American, who will be premiering as music director and holder of the Harvey M. and Lyn P. Meyerhoff Chair for the BSO next year.
Heyward will be the first Black conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in its 106 year history to date. He will be the only Black conductor of a major symphony orchestra in America today, but change is on the horizon. Incidentally, the first woman to lead the orchestra was Ms. Marin Alsop, who first conducted in September 2007.
The night was led by current Principal Pops Conductor, Jack Everly,who is in his last season in the role for the BSO. Before Ledisi graced the stage, Everly did three short medley’s of musical theater classics, to include West Side Story and the work of Baltimore’s own Eubie Blake.
Everly told the crowd of how Eubie Blake helped desegregate Broadway with his all-Black 1921 musical, “Shuffle Along.”
“Here was the very first time on Broadway that an entire creative staff–Black, an entire cast–Black, Black choreographer–you name it, came to Broadway,” said Everly. “It was a huge success, they broke down barriers and it ran for more than a year.”
It was the first full gala event inside of the Meyerhoff in four years. Energy and excitement filled every corner of the venue on one of Baltimore’s most memorable nights of music.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was established in 1916 under the leadership of the Baltimore City government. It was converted to a private organization in 1942. The BSO is respected for its collection of talents in the USA and around the world. It is also well noted for its outreach into the community.
Jonathon Heyward begins his groundbreaking tenure as the symphony conductor in Baltimore with a five year contract for the 2023-24 season. He is 29 years old, bi-racial and originally from Charleston, S.C.
Heyward is now the chief conductor of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Germany. Last year, he led several concerts in Baltimore including a benefit concert for Ukraine.
Heyward began his involvement with music by studying cello at 10. He is a graduate of the Boston Conservatory, who later served as an assistant conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in England, under music director, Mark Elder.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is a struggling business that Heyward will eventually inherit. Despite its annual attendance of over 350,000, its ticket sales are lukewarm at 40 percent capacity. But Heyward brings fresh energy and ideas to engage the community and to invite symphony music lovers back.
The turnout and excitement surrounding the anniversary concert for the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall speaks well for the rediscovery of orchestral sounds in our city.
Mr. Jonathan Rush, associate conductor of the BSO and artistic director of the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestras, gave the AFRO an interview shortly after the concert.
Rush exuberantly spoke of the great programs of the BSO and of the night’s outstanding performance by Ledisi, who shared the stage with OrchKids and BSO Youth Orchestras. “When it comes to symphonies, it is very, very rare to see a person of color onstage in general,” Rush, a young African American, said.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall are continuing to do their parts to help improve the lives of the children of Baltimore. They welcome students from the Baltimore City Public School System to perform as one unit with the BSO throughout the year.
Young students performing and studying their music is a rare, hopeful and very promising opportunity.
The OrchKids Program is the BSO’s school-based music education and life skill development initiative. Programming takes place during the school day and afterschool.
Sites of the program have included Lockerman Bundy Elementary in West Baltimore and Highlandtown Elementary/Middle #215 in East Baltimore. It is award winning. More of this type of institutional outreach must be done in Baltimore City with and for the children and youths.
Listen carefully: the sights and sounds coming from our city’s main music hall are the sounds of hopefulness and that should be music to Charm City’s ears.
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