Orchestral Maneuvers

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New York City, cultural Mecca, meet New York City, metropolis of social engineering, paragon of the projects, capital of subsidized programs for poor city people.

Put them together, and the result is the New York City Housing Authority Orchestra. It’s not every public housing regulatory body that employs its own musicians, but NYCHA has about 45. Recruited from the ranks of professional freelance musicians and supplemented by Housing Authority tenants, the full orchestra plays two or three concerts a year–even cracking Carnegie Hall last year.

Their repertoire–classical, semi-classical, jazz and show tunes–may not be the stereotypical score of the projects. But the tunes go over well enough, judging from a recent performance of the orchestra’s brass quintet at Queensbridge Houses.

It was the 60th anniversary of Queensbridge, the largest housing project in the United States. The day was almost unbearably hot, but except for one tenant who fainted most of the audience was having a good time, sitting on the benches chatting and taking advantage of free hot dogs and burgers.

The brass quintet shared the bill with 22-year-old DJ Funky Child, who played upbeat salsa, house, and rap by stars like Sisqo and Montell Jordan. The crowd–even its older members–got up and danced.

Then, after a few songs, the NYCHA musicians stepped in to mellow things out. Outfitted in white-collared shirts and dark pants, armed with tuba, French horn, trombone and trumpets, the group tended toward the breezy and well-aged in its playlist, with tunes like “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Take the A Train” and selections from Porgy and Bess.

The audience was markedly less enthusiastic while the quintet played, but many did say they appreciated the variety and a chance to hear something novel.

And according to trumpet player Aaron Flagg, that’s exactly the reason why civic activist Janet Wolf created the orchestra 28 years ago: She felt the orchestra would offer many minority classical musicians or kids interested in classical music the opportunity to play in a symphony orchestra. “It’s not just important as an orchestra,” says Flagg. “It exposes minority kids to classical music.”

DJ Funky Child, a Queensbridge resident himself, agrees. “The orchestra brings a different sound to the projects and introduces a different kind of music to the people here,” he says. “We need more different music like this. Someone might hear it and wonder what it is and want to pursue it.”