Is that a piccolo peeking out from behind the library check-out desk? Could that be a tenor tip-toeing through the turn-styles?
Classical orchestral music and opera programs for families have been popping up at local libraries this summer, performing free mini-concerts for audiences ranging in age from senior citizens to 2-year-olds in strollers equipped with sippy cups.
These concerts represent a departure from the libraries’ well-established reputation as hallowed halls of silence, where the only sound ever heard was the occasional snap of a page being turned.
At least two arts groups have brought classical orchestra music and operas to libraries this summer:
The Annapolis Opera is presenting 14 “Stories Through Music” concerts in Anne Arundel County libraries from late June through early August. The program, which is aimed at youngsters ages 6 to 10, explains the plots behind operas, biblical spirituals and art songs (a form of classical music composed for a singer and piano and often sung in German.)
“I’m a tenor,” Brandon Lockhart told a few dozen young audience members recently at the Michael E. Busch Annapolis Library. “In opera, tenors tend to be the lover boys and the good guys. We’re always trying to rescue somebody.”
Then Lockhart opened his mouth and belted out an aria from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” that demonstrated quite persuasively what a hero sounds like.
Meanwhile, children in Cecil and Frederick counties were learning how musical instruments can be played to mimic the chirps and growls and meows of different animals in Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its musicians’ foundation sent a woodwind quintet and the spoken word artist Wordsmith to perform the 45-minute comic kids’ classic as part of the symphony’s Music for Maryland summer tour, which will bring the BSO to every county in the state over three years.
On a recent late afternoon, a meeting room at the Elkton Branch Library filled with families eager to hear the story of how clever Peter defeated the Big Bad W with the help of some friends: a bird (the flute), a duck (the oboe), a cat (the clarinet) and his grumpy grandfather (a bassoon.)
As Beth Graham played the menacing strains of the wolf on her French horn, a young girl in the first row, her face alert and alive, turned to her friends and pulled her hands up to her shoulders, forming them into the shape of claws. Another girl in a pink shirt began to dance in the aisle.
Mazie Converse, 10, of Newark, Delaware, watched with rapt concentration as Marcia McHugh executed tricky trills on her flute.
“That’s really hard,” said Maisie, who has recently began taking flute lessons. “She’s really good.”
Brian Prechtl, the symphony’s interim director of education and community engagement, hopes to integrate more family-friendly activities into the summer tours in future years.
He said there’s a growing realization in the classical music field that concert halls — despite the pristine acoustics that showcase the deep and rich sound of an orchestra performing at its best — can actually be a barrier to attendance.
Instead of expecting audiences to take the time, effort and spend the money to visit symphony halls, Prechtl said there’s an increased emphasis on taking the orchestra to places where people naturally congregate: libraries or churches or high school auditoriums. Perhaps the acoustics can’t always compare. But the trade-off is worth it.
“People look at classical music as something that takes place over there,” Prechtl said, and gestured with his arm towards someplace far away and practically out of view.
“They look at classical music as something that is for someone else. But, we want to [reach] everyone. We’ve got to help people see that what we do can be a part of their daily lives.”
But of all the possible places to hold a music concert, a library might be the most unexpected.
Everyone expects people to make noise in a high school gym, or a public park. But in a library, where the norm has always been hush-hush? Not so much.
So ingrained is this social rule that it was affectionately satirized in Meredith Wilson’s 1957 musical, “The Music Man.”
In one of the musical’s best-known songs, “Marian the Librarian,” the character of Professor Harold Hill jokes that he’ll forever be prevented from declaring his feelings to the woman he loves, because he must conduct his courtship inside her workplace.
“It’s a long-lost cause I can never win,” Hill sings, “For the civilized world accepts as unforgivable sin / Talking out loud with any librarian / Such as Marian.”
But those were the old days, according to Christine Feldmann, director of communications for the Busch Annapolis Library. She is quite sure that Harold Hill wouldn’t run into the same roadblocks in 2023.
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“This is not your grandmother’s library,” she said. “You are encouraged to come to our library and to eat and drink at our library. You can even make joyful noises in our library.”
That’s good to know, since opera singers are famed for their ability to project their voices to the back row of a 2,500-seat concert hall without a microphone.
Dnazha Mason, 24, brought four children to the Annapolis opera concert, including her two-year-old daughter, Treasure Stevenson. Mason said she doesn’t know much about opera, but always thought it was beautiful. She wanted to expose the youngsters to something they didn’t encounter every day.
And indeed, Treasure, reclining in her stroller like a young queen, opened her mouth wide in a perfect oval just after Lockhart opened his mouth to propel Mozart’s music to the back of the room. When Lockhart closed his mouth, Treasure closed her mouth, too.
And when the song ended and Treasure’s brother and cousin began to clap, Treasure put down her bottle and clapped along with them.
One minute later, Treasure’s head lolled to one side and she was fast asleep.
“She was really engaged,” Mason said. “She hung in there for as long as she could.”