Art and Activism: Dispatch from Baltimore #2

Yesterday was a cathartic day in Baltimore. In the morning, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby ruled Freddie Gray’s death a homicide, and announced criminal charges against the six police officers involved. I’m not sure I can call it a good day, because these developments don’t bring back a young Black man who never should have been arrested in the first place, nor do they fully engage the underlying issues in our city and country. Still, it was a just day.

In the afternoon, we held our biannual Junior Bach Program concert at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. This event, featuring original music by middle-school composers from the St. Ignatius Loyola Academy and the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women – mentored by our composition majors, and played by our performance majors – is typically attended by a large contingent of the young composers’ fellow students. Those students were sent home early due to concerns about protest-related traffic, so I was concerned that our composers wouldn’t get the support their new work so richly deserves.

As it turned out, the concert was electric. The energy was unusually palpable, even from backstage. My call for members of the Peabody community to fill the audience void was answered and then some. The crowd rose to my challenge that they outdo the volume of 80 middle schoolers, and the Peabody musicians who made time to rehearse and premiere this music raised their game in response. Each piece, performance and composer received a thunderous ovation, and the teachers from one of our partner schools presented their student composers with flowers.

It was not an easy week in Baltimore, even if most of us in the concert hall experienced the uprising (neither “riots” nor “unrest” strike me as meaningful terms) at a distance. This city is a family, and our family pride runs strong. All families have deep histories of dysfunction and struggle; ours is a very particular microcosm of an America built on white supremacy, as native son Ta-Nehisi Coates reminded us at Hopkins this week. The national media often defaults to a dim image of Baltimore, missing both the complexity and beauty we know so well. The inability of outsiders to grasp the greatness of our city is part of what shapes us. We’re ready for the reporters, the helicopters, and the National Guard with their rifles and tanks to leave the work that lies ahead to us.

The Junior Bach Program is a small but essential part of that work. It’s a community built around young people looking to build a life in music, empowering even younger people from far less privileged backgrounds to make their own music in an artistically vibrant and diverse city. It is Baltimore at its transcendent best, everything that the endlessly looped B-roll of a burning car and terse confrontations with and between political leaders cannot capture. So when friends and relatives nervously ask our audience members “how’s it going down there?”, I hope they’ll tell them about the Junior Bach concert. I hope they’ll say it was a good day in Baltimore.