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Beyond Beyonce: Boston Symphony taking it to the streets

Getting a better grasp of their musical roots


Wander Boston’s more diverse neighborhoods and you’re more likely to hear Beyonce than Brahms or Drake than Dvorak. The Boston Symphony Orchestra says that’s about to change. Starting this month, the renowned orchestra is reaching out to Jamaica Plain, Roxbury and Dorchester – culturally vibrant corners of the city that haven’t fully embraced classical music – to get a better grasp of their musical roots and needs.

Thomas Wilkins, the BSO’s youth and family concerts conductor, said the goal is “to build deep and meaningful relationships with people … alongside the rich cultural offerings of their unique neighborhoods.””We must share this amazing music that touches so many of us with those who may not otherwise be able to experience it,” said Wilkins, the 136-year-old orchestra’s first black conductor. “It’s the right thing to do.”

It’s part of a growing trend of US symphonies taking it to the streets. Florida’s Jacksonville Symphony, New Jersey’s Newark Symphony, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and others are bringing the classics to audiences whose musical traditions have favored other genres. The “BSO in Residence” initiative kicked off last weekend in Jamaica Plain with a free outdoor concert in Franklin Park, the city’s largest green space, followed by a question-and-answer session at Margarita Muniz Academy, a dual English-Spanish language high school.

‘A good concept’
Next up: appearances and workshops at other schools to give young Bostonians of color a chance to meet and play with key orchestra members. For years, the Boston Symphony and its sister orchestra – the Boston Pops – have worked to expose residents of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods to classical music. But those efforts mostly have involved bringing people to Symphony Hall or to the orchestra’s summer home at Tanglewood in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.

“‘Maybe we shouldn’t ask them to come to us – maybe we should go to them’ is a good concept,” said David France, executive director of Revolution of Hope, a world-class youth orchestra in Roxbury. France, a classical violinist who’s performed with Quincy Jones and John Legend but also plays in the subway, said he’s learned the value of bringing music to places where people can enjoy it on their own terms.

“People connect to it,” he said. “They’ll stop to dance the latest moves to Bach. People have been beatboxing and freestyle rapping to my music. It’s become the soundtrack to their lives.” The symphony’s three-year road trip sprang from a cultural study commissioned by Democratic Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Community leaders complained that predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods don’t have equal access to the fine arts.

Kelley Chunn, acting president of the Roxbury Cultural District – a new nonprofit promoting arts and culture in the neighborhood – said the symphony’s decision to venture beyond its gilded walls “will broaden the cultural boundaries for the community.” And by going grassroots, Chunn said, the orchestra will also be enriched. “There’s a lot of culture going on in our neighborhoods,” she said. “We can all find common ground through classical music.” – AP


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