The halls hum with the reverberations of a small army of violas on a Tuesday afternoon at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.
The sounds aren’t being piped in through the school’s loudspeakers, and they’re not the school’s own orchestra program — it doesn’t have one. It’s the next generation of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra practicing in its new home off Mosby Street.
The partnership between the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra and the Richmond Public Schools is nothing new. City students have been honing their chops alongside the world-class musicians of the Richmond Symphony since the partnership was established in the spring of 1962. What’s novel about this collaboration is the rehearsal space and what it says about the mission of the program.
Establishing Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School as a practice venue unlocks access to a vibrant, challenging fine arts organization that children might not experience otherwise. This move is about injecting the arts directly into the city’s education system and presenting opportunities to flourish that are impossible to ignore.
Spending on K-12 education is down across Virginia, and it’s during belt-tightening periods that fine arts education funding often finds itself a mere afterthought. Gov. Terry McAuliffe has passed up no opportunity to promulgate the priority of education spending in his upcoming executive budget. But 99 percent of Virginia’s students live in school districts spending less per pupil than during the recession. Richmond is no exception, and this makes relationships such as the one fostered by the symphony and school system even more vital to the success of the students in bolstering instruction and extracurricular activities where the district might be forced to make cuts.
The newly strengthened relationship is personified in Christie Jo Adams, a fine arts instructional specialist for the Richmond Public Schools and the conductor of the string Sinfonietta, one of the youth orchestra program’s four ensembles.
Adams is an alumna of the program, attending from the age of 9 to bolster her proficiency on the violin under the direction of Richmond Symphony violist Joseph Wargo — from whom she eventually inherited the role of Sinfonietta conductor.
Her current administrative role primarily interacts with school administration and staff, and she says she’s inspired by the opportunity to work directly with students. She helped broker the agreement for the youth orchestra program to practice at the middle school, and she’s excited about what such an arrangement might mean for the children.
“Now there will be no barriers for students that live in that area — they can walk right over and be in the orchestra,” she says. “It’s exposure for those students. I’m just not sure how many of those students would go to the symphony, and so we put it into their neighborhood. We put it right there in their school.”
Adams and the school’s administrators hope the program will spark interest within the student body to join one of the four ensembles and potentially catalyze motivation to establish their own school orchestra program.
In the meantime, there’s no shortage of interest in the program outside the halls of the school. In September, waves of students descended upon Richmond CenterStage to audition for the ensembles: Sinfonietta, Camerata, the Youth Concert Orchestra and the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra. Ensembles vary in the level of musical proficiency required of membership. The entry-level Sinfonietta doesn’t require a formal audition and accepts all applicants.
Students were referred to the program in different ways, but they came downtown that day seeking a lot of the same opportunities.
“Our band director is great, but I want that individual attention to help me get better,” says Lamont Beard, a violist from Armstrong High School.
Mary Wuerth, a junior bassoonist and exchange student echoes Lamont’s desire for specialized instruction. But she also sees participation in the Youth Concert Orchestra as the only way to keep up with peers back home in her native Germany, where her city’s youth symphony program is more comprehensive.
“When we were kids, they had members of the symphony come and visit us at school and showed us all of these exotic instruments that we could play” she says. “I chose the bassoon because of its unique look and sound.”
In addition to individual attention and training from Richmond Symphony musicians, participation in any of the ensembles grants students unrestricted access to the symphony’s Master Works, Casual Fridays and Lollipop series at CenterStage.
The fall session concludes with ensemble performances at CenterStage on Sunday, Dec. 6, when students share a program with their Richmond Symphony mentors. S