Audubon resident Michael Langston is an amateur in the original sense of the word, and it has served him well during a special stint with the professional musicians of the Mt. Airy-based Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra.
We usually think of amateurs as people who lack professional training or experience. The root of the word goes a little deeper, though: an amateur is a person who does something for the love of it, not for profit or fame.
And those are the people who appeared when BPCO put out an open audition call last year for non-professional musicians to train and perform alongside its professionals for one special concert.
From Kentucky to Philly
Langston, a Kentucky native, has lived in Pennsylvania for only a few years. He doesn’t make his living by playing the flute, but his life has been steeped in music. He has a degree in music education and has played flute for 30 of his 42 years.
He works out of his home for the Flute Pro Shop, and also gives private flute lessons.
His move up north was for family health reasons. Langston was used to small-town life, and the adjustment has been tough.
“People are rude. Drivers are awful. I can’t get from point A to point B in any amount of decent time,” he said.
It’s also harder to stand out as an artist here.
Back home, he was always “the go-to person when someone needs a flute-player,” and moving near a major city full of musicians made him feel like “a small fish in a huge ocean.”
But hearing last spring that BPCO music director Jeri Lynne Johnson had selected him for the Side-by-Side program was a big boost.
Johnson’s BPCO was the only organization in Philadelphia to win the Knight Arts Challenge every year of the program, with her latest concept nabbing a $50,000 award in 2013. That was matched by corporate partner PECO. The School District of Philadelphia also pitched in by opening up the state-of-the-art auditorium at Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts for the orchestra’s rehearsals.
A few music teachers from the School District will also be rounding out the orchestra for the Beethoven performance.
Opera Philadelphia, another partner, will provide the choral portion of the event.
Some musicians auditioned in person, and some auditioned via YouTube. Out of a field of about 30 hopeful adult players, many of whom play in volunteer orchestras but do not make their living as a musician, Johnson chose about 15 for the program.
That number has since been reduced to 11, after life events intervened for some. Along with her regular orchestra, Johnson said the performance will have over 70 musicians.
Doing Beethoven justice
From the beginning, Johnson has always called her Side-by-Side idea an “orchestra fantasy camp” where amateur and professional musicians alike would be held to the highest standard.
“Beethoven Nine [also known as “Ode to Joy”] is an incredibly complicated and wonderful piece,” she explained.
It’s a technical challenge for any individual, but also requires an expert commitment to “interconnected playing” from the ensemble as a whole.
“We weren’t going to dumb anything down. We weren’t going to make it easy for people,” Johnson continued. “You’re playing with professionals and these are what professionals look like…if you hold people to that expectation, then they’re going to rise to the occasion.”
With weekly rehearsals beginning in April and individual practice in between, Johnson led the orchestra through one movement of the iconic piece at a time.
“One of the things I was really impressed by is how seriously they took the whole process,” the conductor said of her “guest” musicians.
“You can always tell when people practice and when they don’t practice. We’ve actually been progressing through the symphony much faster than I thought, because they’ve all been practicing in between…they’re really working hard and I’m so proud and excited for them.”
Langston was impressed by Johnson’s approach.
“I’ve been very lucky to play under some fine conductors…and Jeri is right up there,” he said. “She’s demanding, yet she has an equal balance of temperament,” including excellent historical scholarship, and the ability to gain her players’ respect and draw out their best work while keeping a good sense of humor.
Musical innovation beyond Philadelphia
Johnson, whose other uniquely accessible orchestra ideas have included an “iConduct” festival that let music fans try their hands at conducting a real orchestra, is on the forefront of classical music outreach in the U.S.
Since then, other Philly institutions have tried similar events.
She just returned from a trip to Seattle, where she presented her Side-by-Side project to the League of American Orchestras.
“The feedback was incredible,” she said. Many attendees of the “packed” session left determined to mount their own versions of the project.
“Black Pearl is setting these trends of innovative engagement, that now other orchestras are beginning to pick up and see this is really the way to develop their relationship with the community.”
Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra’s Citywide Side-by-Side rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will be performed on June 21 at 7 p.m. at the newly renovated Dell Music Center in East Fairmount Park. The show is free to all, but attendees should download a flier and bring it as their ticket to the performance. For more information, visit BPCO’s website.