In the fall of 2015, then-Executive Director of the Annapolis Symphony, Patrick Nugent, began conversations with board members, donors, orchestra members, and community partners about their aspirations for the future of the Annapolis Symphony. In close collaboration with Music Director José-Luis Novo and Board Chair Karen W. Smith, Nugent led a board in a planning process that crystallized those aspirations into a strategic framework called SYMPHONY 2020.
One of the priorities identified in these community conversations was expansion of the Symphony’s education programs, which were strong but had changed little in twenty years. When asked how the Symphony could best align any expansion with the aims of the Anne Arundel County Public School System’s music program, the Superintendent’s office praised the Symphony’s programs for schoolchildren, but asked us to focus our efforts on how to support gifted middle- and high-school musicians in continuing to study and play their instruments through the end of high school rather than giving them up for other pursuits. The Symphony’s Concertmaster, Dr. Netanel Draiblate, engaged in the discussion and pointed out that high-quality private instrumental instruction was in short supply for some students, prohibited due to cost for others. Another critical priority for the Board was increasing the Symphony’s diversity at all levels. In the context of a national discussion on the dearth of African-American and other musicians of color in American orchestras, it became clear that the Symphony might make its own contribution to building a more diverse pipeline of students who could become professional classical musicians.
In response to this convergence of opportunities, Dr. Draiblate proposed to Dr. Nugent the basic framework—and the name—for the Academy. The concept was a combination of private lessons, group instruction, and ensemble experiences that would begin with middle-school students and expand later to high-schoolers, elementary-schoolers, and even preschoolers. To achieve the aims of economic and cultural diversity, the program would recruit a student body of which approximately half paid full tuition and half were on scholarship; at the same time, at least half would be students from racial or cultural backgrounds not well-represented in classical music, and half would not. Economic and cultural considerations would be independent of one another.
A committee of board members and volunteers supported management in a two-year process of developing a detailed program design and multi-year budget. The committee conferred several times with the full Board of Trustees of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, which considered the final design over three meetings and gave final approval in December 2017. In the spring of 2018, Dr. Draiblate conducted a rigorous recruitment campaign throughout the Anne Arundel County Public School system, and an inaugural class of twenty-one students was assembled. Without any deliberate choosing of students to meet the two 50/50 aims, the class very closely represented those mixtures. The first class met a key objective: representing in the program today the full diversity we wished to see on the symphonic stage of the future.
Symphony leadership made a commitment to the Board that none of the projects envisioned by SYMPHONY 2020 would affect the basic operating budget of the Symphony. No project would be instituted unless funding had been previously identified. The planning process worked through several five-year budget scenarios and, after trial and error, settled on a model that seemed workable. Funding for the pilot phases was provided by two anonymous donors, one of whom made a challenge grant, and the other met the challenge. At a season Opening Night Celebration, Draiblate and Nugent were introduced to Jane Campbell-Chambliss and Peter Chambliss, civic leaders and philanthropists in Annapolis. A discussion began that evening, and some months later, former Board President Anna Greenberg hosted a meeting between Nugent, Draiblate, and the Chamblisses at which the full vision was shared. As a result of that meeting, Jane and Pete committed to a major five-year commitment to provide the bulk of the philanthropic support needed to ensure that the program would be fiscally sustainable for those five years. This was one of the most significant financial commitments in the history of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, and without it, the Academy would not have come to be. In June of 2018 in a ceremony filmed by CBS News, the first class of the Academy was announced and the inaugural cohort of students were handed their acceptance letters by Jane and Pete.
Another crucial success was the generous agreement of Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold, MD, to house the program at a significantly reduced rental rate. Lessons, group classes, and ensemble work began at the temple in the fall of 2018, and the first concert was held in the sanctuary in December of that year. TBS has continued to be the home of the Academy.
In March of 2021, a new expansion of the Academy was announced, which included the appointment of Maestro José-Luis Novo—who had provided wise counsel and steadfast support throughout—as the Director of Orchestral Activities for the Academy. Also announced was the formation of the Orion Youth Orchestra, a new, major component of the Academy’s program. Orion is the only youth orchestra in the United States sponsored by a professional symphony orchestra which is conducted by the sponsoring orchestra’s Music Director. Also included in the expansion are programs for elementary- and pre-school students, and revised ensemble programs for beginning and intermediate students. For the first time, participants in the ensembles may also include students who take private lessons outside the Academy’s Virtuoso Pathway.