Jalen's Beat: On the Road with Adelphi Quartet
On Tuesday, June 4, I shadowed Adelphi Quartet as they visited three schools in Prince George’s county, performing and answering questions for students in elementary and middle school. On this day, the group visited Phyllis E. Williams Spanish Immersion Elementary, Thomas Pullen Arts Academy and Hollywood Elementary. Adelphi, an all-Black and Latinx quartet founded at the National Orchestral Institute + Festival in 2017, was imagined and realized by Marza Wilks, the NOI+F Orchestral Futurist Fellow at the time. The Fellowship is a partnership between the Sphinx Organization—a social justice organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts—and the National Orchestral Institute + Festival. The fellowship ensures that together, both organizations further advance the power of diversity in the arts.
A central part of Adelphi’s mission is to inspire the next generation of classical musicians. Throughout NOI+F, the quartet will be performing all across Maryland, inspiring young musicians, specifically students from underrepresented minority groups—Black and Latinx—in classical music. According to a report by the league of American Orchestras, Black musicians make up 1.8 percent of orchestras while Latinx musicians make up 2.5 percent. The group has a jam-packed engagement schedule. Not only are they engaging with the communities surrounding the University of Maryland, they’re also full participants in NOI+F’s month-long, immersive orchestral experience.
On Tuesday, Adelphi’s engagement work started at 10 am and ended at 1:30 pm; they hopped from school to school, spending one hour at each, with only 15 minutes in-between for travel and check-in. Adelphi approaches this work with pride and vigor. They are forthcoming and encouraging with their answers, observant and always patient. The group demonstrates a deep appreciation for the unique opportunity they have, as underrepresented minorities, to inspire black and brown kids in this country, showing them that classical music can indeed be a space for them. Representation matters. It’s no small thing to see someone who looks like you finding a home at the top of whatever industry you’re interested in, especially when it is as rare an occurrence as it is in classical music.
As the quartet introduced themselves to three separate school groups, I was struck by the similarities in their stories. For most of the members of the quartet, music, specifically classical music, was a family affair. Julian Maddox, a violinist based out of Cleveland, Ohio, who’s filling in for the regular second-violinist, started playing violin at six-years-old, after attending an orchestra performance with his mother. After the performance had ended, he asked his mother, “Can I do that for a job?” You may be able to guess what her answer was. Brendon Elliott, currently on residency in Miami, Florida, has deep ties to classical music and the Sphinx Organization. His brother, Sterling Elliot, has won both the Junior and Senior Division Sphinx Competitions, taking home the crown in 2019 and 2014, while Brendon has been a three-time Junior Division finalist. Their mother, a musician herself, taught both her boys to play—Brendon starting on the violin at three-years-old. Marza, a Peruvian native who grew up in Ithaca, New York and now lives in Los Angeles, started playing when she was five, under the tutelage of a private instructor. She chose the cello because her brother was once a young violinist who practiced sparingly, and as a result, projected painful noises all throughout the house when he played. And Omar Shelly, a Las Vegas native, who seems to fall into the late-starter, fast-learner archetype a-la Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam in professional basketball, started playing viola in a public-school music program in middle school. There are no musicians in his immediate family, but he did tell me that there was rumor of a multi-instrumentalist cousin, capable of playing just about any instrument you could imagine.
Kids never cease to surprise you, do they?
There were plenty of great questions from students, but the ones that intrigued me most included noticeable probing for imperfections, blemishes in the glossy armor of these intensely-skilled professionals. One student asked what the hardest pieces they had ever played were. Another student wanted to know how they deal with the stress of playing so many challenging pieces. But my favorite question came from a Thomas Pullen middle school student who asked, “Did y’all mess up at all?” I’d like to think this student knew that they had, not because they caught any mistakes with a genius ear, but because it would only be natural, human; because it would make the people sitting in front of them, whose lives they may barely be able to imagine, that much more real.
Some other random thoughts:
I inadvertently inserted myself into the group’s engagement work by talking about the NBA Finals, apparently, within ear-shot of the Hollywood Elementary students. During the Q&A session, one of the students asked Julian, the group-member I was talking to, who he was rooting for in the NBA Finals. Julian confessed to be rooting for the Toronto Raptors, much to the chagrin of the student who had asked the question. I mention this here because it’s easy to convince yourself that the titans at the top of any artistic discipline are either empathic art-gods or aloof creative geniuses when in reality they are ordinary people, talented and dedicated certainly, but not so vastly different from you and I. The same student who asked about the NBA Finals, also asked the quartet if they could play “Old Town Road.” I’ve seen what Old Town Road can do to a classroom full of kids—they were wise not to oblige.
As a complete outsider to classical music, I’m working with a miniscule base of references, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, one of the pieces the quartet played, a tango, titled Fandango, reminded me of the popular Charlie Daniels Band song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” If you are unfamiliar, it’s a chart-topping retelling of the classic deal with the devil tale. The Devil strolls into town, heavy on his horse and low on souls, (apparently there’s a quota system or something), and sees Johnny “sawing on a fiddle” and challenges him to a duel. As you can imagine, the song is chock-full of dueling fiddle solos by the Devil and Johnny, the young man who agrees to the fiddle contest for his soul. SPOILER ALERT: Johnny beats the devil and wins the golden fiddle in the end. And yes, it is as sweet sounding a victory as you’re imagining.
This season, The Clarice has hosted writer Jalen Eutsey as part Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance's Urban Arts Leadership Fellowship. This prestigious fellowship is aimed at diversifying the management of cultural and artistic organizations. Throughout June 2019, Eutsey will be writing about the National Orchestral Institute + Festival. He'll examine NOI+F's performances, rehearsals and engagement events with an eye towards equity and inclusion.
Eutsey holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Miami and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Poetry from Johns Hopkins University. His poems have been published in Miscellany, Mr. Ma’am, The Rush, Into the Void and Northern Virginia Review. While in graduate school, he taught creative writing to high school and middle school students as part of the Writers in Baltimore Schools program.