In a church with yellow walls and stained-glass windows, a red carpet and maybe two dozen audience members scattered on benches, an orchestra plays the Haydn Cello Concerto in C major. It’s the DC Strings June 2018 finale concert. The nonprofit was founded just over two years ago and has performed over 30 concerts since then.
Lisa Premo sits front and center as the featured performer in the piece. Premo joined the orchestra by “serendipity.” She was making latkes with her mother and felt a sudden urge to play music. “So, I emailed Andrew” – Andrew Lee, founding arts director of DC Strings, the organization she had discovered previously at a meetup – “and I asked, are you still looking for cellos?”
He said yes, they did not have any cellists. She hadn’t made the rehearsal, and the performance was the next day. Yet, when she arrived at the performance, two cellists showed up. “It’s really indicative of the miracles that Andrew pulls off time and time again, where people will show up,” she observes.
DC Strings held its first concert in December 2016 at the Covenant Baptist Church in Southeast, performing the Messiah. Over 300 people attended. “We’re really onto something,” the performers thought.
Lee, who grew up in Atlanta, where he was exposed to orchestral music at a performing arts high school, has lived in DC for nearly a decade. “I realized that there was a group of people that were being left out from traditional orchestra concerts,” Lee says. “Our mission is to reach those people, engage them, excite them.”
On a Mission
“We need to have more music, more live music,” Lee reflects. “And not everyone can afford to go to the Kennedy Center.”
When I speak with members of the orchestra about why they decided to join, why they decided to stay, a single answer emerges: the mission. From the start, the members of DC Strings founded their orchestra “on the belief that access to excellence in music is an essential human right.” It’s an effort that permeates everything the orchestra does. To Lee, the mission is about working to “celebrate contributions of people who are not typically on stage,” including performing pieces by, and welcoming membership of, women and people of color.
Violinist Peter Clamp is drawn to the organization for its mission. DC Strings, Clamp explains, “is about transforming lives through music.” Knowing that the music he’s playing has an “extra mission behind it” gives him a “double pleasure.”
Central to the mission is making certain music available to communities that may not otherwise have access to it. “We don’t just show up, play a concert and leave,” Lee notes. Rather, the organization prioritizes community engagement. Lovancy Ingram, the orchestra’s concertmaster, recounts, for instance, that they once performed Messiah at a church where it had never been performed before. Most concerts are free.
Clamp reinforces this aim, contending that “the orchestra takes the music to the people as much as the people are coming to the orchestra.” The orchestra is “breaking down those invisible barriers and making music in places music doesn’t often get to.” Premo agrees: “We’re not doing something for [audiences],” she says, “we’re doing something with them.”
DC Strings uses more than just concerts to reach audiences. Music is the means for impact. The organization goes to local public schools, like Hart Middle School, to lead educational music programming. Dr. Raymond Pitts, who plays cello, says he is particularly interested in using music to reach and educate children. “I speak to children about how music is created and how it can help you as a person,” Pitts explains. He teaches them to understand the way vibrations of strings create sounds, and how this idea can help them express their own feelings.
Another way DC Strings works to fulfill its mission is by prioritizing the diversity of members and of composers. The average person who knows something about classical music, Ingram explains, may have heard of Beethoven or Bach, “great composers, but then there are others out there, and there are contemporary folks, too.” The orchestra, she explains, performs pieces by “people of color,” underrepresented in performances like these.
The orchestra is open-minded to diversity in a myriad of ways, even in the instruments they welcome. For instance, Premo recounts, a recorder player “showed up,” and so the organization performed a recorder concerto. Many orchestra members explain that music is not limited to classical. “Orchestras by and large don’t have reputations of being particularly diverse groups of people,” says Clamp. Most pieces played by orchestras, for instance, will be by “old white European men, and many orchestras are biased in that direction in their membership.”
Inspired by DC’s residents, DC Strings forefronts local engagement, which also means being local at every step of the way. Lee says the organization engages with local conductors, local musicians, local artists and soloists. They hold a concerto competition, where the winner performs a concerto with the orchestra. Clamp observes that in performing concerts in churches, community members are engaged in ways they may otherwise not be.
A Community in Harmony
Pitts values DC Strings for the people, among other reasons. The members have a variety of backgrounds, he explains. “They’re all kinds of people interested in all kinds of instruments.” Maybe they’re from a conservatory, maybe they played in a military band, and “they’re here because they love music.”
Remarks Lee, “Young, old, professional musicians, and amateur musicians and people in the middle – they come together to really do and present great work.”
Ingram, who began playing violin at age three, studied music through a nonprofit whose motto was “Music within reach.” For her, music is a “beauty” coming from self-expression and allows people to connect at a level they may not otherwise experience. Music is really like a language of the heart,” Ingram concludes, and DC Strings “is trying to bring that human element to places where it hasn’t been before.”