Patrons line up at the Siegel Center to buy candy, pizza, and soda — but not to see lanky Virginia Commonwealth University students playing basketball. The crowds are here to claim seats for a concert of Copland, Dvorak, Brahms and Bernstein at the Richmond Symphony's third annual Come and Play event, conducted by the associate conductor, Erin Freeman.
With only a half day's rehearsal, a ragtag band of professionals, children and passionate amateurs pull together a rollicking performance of light classics evocative of Halloween, “The Nutcracker” and glittering holiday balls. Children from across the area and as far away as North Carolina don pumpkin-colored T-shirts and sit among highly trained racehorses of the music world. But they're as likely to sit next to an medical-school graduate as a Julliard graduate; this ensemble is peopled by doctors, lawyers, letter carriers and engineers, as well as the game members of the symphony.
Striking in long, elegant dreadlocks, Temple Stewart teaches special education at James River High School and plays saxophone in her church praise band. She's participated in this event for three years running, but since saxophone is not often used in orchestral music, she began practicing her clarinet with more determination. Stewart's also started bringing others with her, including friends from church, and her niece, who in turn brings her clarinet-wielding friend.
“We look forward to it every year,” Stewart says. “It brings together people of all ages, all races — all that doesn't matter. No matter what occupation, we have a common goal: to have fun and also to support and promote music in the schools.”
Money from Come and Play goes to the symphony's educational mission, including the Symphony @ School program which connects Lucille Brown Elementary and Binford Middle schools with musical services and support from players and staff.
The lively event has turned into an annual tradition for many. Families are dispersed throughout the Come and Play orchestra: a flute playing mom and her bass playing son; multitudes of siblings who set aside their quotidian battles; music teachers and their adored protAcgAcs happily sharing a stand. More than one college student has returned to play with his or her beloved youth symphony conductor again and to renew contacts with childhood music buddies.
“It's fun. I want to make it a [personal] tradition,” says violinist Dale Chang, a freshman in University of Virginia's engineering program. Sydney Stewart, a young, burgeoning clarinet player, says conductor Freeman makes everyone feel welcome and capable of making great music. “I like the constructor — she's real nice!” Stewart's friend Zakira agrees: “She let us shout ‘Mambo' at the end — that was the most fun!”
Freeman gets the audience singing, shouting and doing the classical music equivalent of the wave. Excitement spills over even into the ranks of the pros. Symphony brass player Richard Serpa displays high spirits by brandishing his gleaming tuba over his head. Challenges, such as tuning this massive orchestra, are deftly overcome by the symphony staff; some of these folks even jump in as players — music librarian Matt Gold shows his stuff, as does the organization's executive director, accomplished pianist and sometime cellist David Fisk.
That the performance level of this ad hoc ensemble is shockingly good — even to experienced ears — should be no surprise when you survey the depth of musical talent in the community. Internationally acclaimed luminaries such as trumpeter and VCU professor Rex Richardson show no compunction about sitting behind youngsters still learning how to properly assemble their instrument.