Community Stories: Terri Baltimore

PSO at Hill House

One of Terri Baltimore’s favorite memories of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra doesn’t involve music. In fact, it was the absence of music that made the moment so special.

Baltimore, who is director of neighborhood engagement at the Hill House Association, recalls a community concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony that was moved to St. Benedict The Moor church in the Hill District due to renovations at the Kaufmann Center. Shortly before the concert began, a giant thunderstorm turned the streets into rivers, blew the electric transformers and even forced open the doors of the church itself. Needless to say, the concert didn’t happen, but that afternoon a church full of stranded people got to know one another.

“We didn’t have music, but we had community,” laughs Baltimore. “It was such an unexpected opportunity to get to know each other.”

Photo of Terri BaltimoreAnd community is something Baltimore has championed throughout her career. The East Liberty native has been involved in the Hill House Association — an independent nonprofit organization that offers a wide range of programs and services to Pittsburgh’s Hill District community and surrounding areas — for more than 25 years.

In her current position, she brings people together to voice opinions, share ideas, build consensus and heal community problems. And many times, arts and cultural programs are the ideal forum to bring people together to experience a sense of ownership, belonging and fellowship. Having music of the caliber of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in the region has proven to be invaluable to her work.

“People from all around the region have a chance to go into Heinz Hall and for a couple of hours be taken to another world by amazing artists,” says Baltimore. “It’s a gift and not everyone has a gift like that.”

Her first exposure to the Pittsburgh Symphony was as a fourth or fifth grader who was one of only three students in her school who were interested in attending a “Concert for Young People,” downtown at Heinz Hall.

“It was just glorious,” she remembers, and perhaps was her inspiration for picking up the clarinet as a child (though she did not play very well, she laughs).

At 16, a cousin gave her a “beautiful birthday gift” of a few Pittsburgh Symphony concerts, and they attended concerts together for several Sunday afternoons. “It was just something that filled your whole heart and your whole head,” she said. “It was a full body experience.”

Fast forward to 2007, where Baltimore as part of her work with the Hill House Association, facilitated a partnership with the Pittsburgh Symphony to present a series of community concerts in the neighborhood as well as several other communities. Hill House provided the venue for the concerts in the Hill District, the Elsie H. Hillman Auditorium at the Kaufmann Center. (The Pittsburgh Symphony recognized her community work in 2008 when it gave her the Paul Ross Award, an award named for former symphony violinist Paul Ross that honors those who give so much to their community.)

“It was another opportunity to hear the music live,” she says. “And to share it in a way that allowed people who might not go downtown to enjoy the music in a venue in their own community.”

One of the most valuable parts of the partnership for Baltimore was that it allowed a conversation to start about how to bring people into hear classical music in the neighborhood, including community members who took on the charge of outreach and inviting others to share in the music.

hill district neighborhood weekThe official partnership with the Pittsburgh Symphony ended for budget reasons after five years. The orchestra does continue to offer concerts in the neighborhood on an ad hoc basis, including one Neighborhood Week concert in late summer 2015 that included Pittsburgh Opera Fellow Jasmine Muhammed (“her voice filled every corner of the auditorium,” says Baltimore), as well as the Pittsburgh Symphony’s Jennifer Orchard, flute, and Lorna McGhee, flute.

Many people’s perception of classical music changed due to these concerts, says Baltimore. She specifically remembers one attendee who on entering the auditorium looked “like he was about to be tortured,” but at the end of the evening he had an experience that made him think “I want to do this again,” she said.

The concerts were thoughtfully constructed to allow interaction between the conductors, orchestra, soloists and audience, giving attendees a chance to learn about the music they were going to hear. Pre- and post-concert events were often built into the evenings, allowing orchestra members and staff to interact with community members and for community members to share their talents, including poetry readings and dance, for example. By the end of the partnership, she also recalled that some people would come in very early to make sure they got the perfect spot to enjoy the music.

“I’m hoping there’s a chance to bring them [the community concerts] back to the Hill,” Baltimore says, emphasizing how important and embedded the arts are to the Hill District community. “It was amazing. People got a chance to hear the music and to really go ‘this is something that can speak to my soul.’”

Learn more about the Hill House Association at hillhouse.org

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May 30