There is something about the thunder of applause as it rises and falls from thousands of appreciative hands in a packed symphony hall that Jean Keenan calls “unforgettable.”
It is the chance to work one-on-one with so many musical masters and under the guidance of Maestra Marin Alsop, the first female conductor of a major symphony orchestra.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) will offer Keenan, an Upper Hanover resident, all that and more when she joins the world-class orchestra as one of the amateur musicians accepted into their annual academy next month. The academy is known as “Side by Side with the Pros.”
In its third year, the academy pairs approximately 90 adult amateurs from across the nation with the professional musicians in the orchestra. For about a week, the amateurs take part in intensive rehearsals, sectionals and chamber sessions with the pros. They also undergo private lessons and seminars on their craft before a finale concert with the BSO at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore June 30.
Each musician will learn a minimum of three demanding pieces for this year’s concert including selections from Tchaikovsky, de Falla and Prokofiev.
“It was the culmination of a lifetime of practice,” Keenan said of her experience at last year’s academy. “You think about how many years these people have practiced and studied and you get to do that for a week. Their level is so high, several of them graduated from Juilliard. Marin [Alsop] studied under Leonard Bernstein.
“I wasn’t nervous, it was just really cool.”
Keenan, a violinist, said her beginnings as a musician were humble.
“I came home from school one day and told my mother they said I was to play the French horn in the school orchestra,” she explained. “But she said she had her old violin in the attic and wasn’t paying rental fees.”
So began her love affair with the violin.
Keenan flourished in the St. Hubert’s High School for Girls orchestra in Philadelphia, serving as their concertmaster. She later chose a business career but continued with violin lessons at the New School of Music in Philadelphia.
After a six-year lapse while raising her family, Keenan returned to the violin at Chestnut Hill College and played in several community orchestras. She also did a 16-year stint with the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra of Maryland.
Now she keeps her bow sharp as a violin teacher at the Conservatory of Music and Dance in Harleysville and Eagleville and by studying under Russian-educated violinist Inna Nedorzev. She plays with the Settlement Music School Adult Chamber Orchestra and chamber groups in Willow Grove.
She practices two hours each day, even though she has more than five decades under her belt.
“It’s the grandchildren and then the violin,” her husband Ed joked of her priorities. “I’m down there somewhere.”
But the chance to play again with the BSO is a thrill, Keenan said. This year she will also be featured in a quartet.
“The challenge is something that I like. It’s the fingerings, the bowings, the timing. It’s not just here is the music and I’m gonna play some notes…The pros treat you like the guy or girl next door and you make good friends there. It’s a great opportunity.”