Frank Keegan: Forget crime, Baltimore City has highest culture rate in nation

Opinion,Frank Keegan

The young woman paused at Light and Montgomery streets. She turned. "Excuse me, excuse me," she asked with evident trepidation.

"What?s this area like? What is Baltimore like?"

Where to start? Magnificent would be an accurate word.

She said she was in town from Chicago for a job interview, walking around Baltimore to get a feel for this place.

Well, 10 months living in this City will lead to one inescapable conclusion: Per capita, pound for pound, brain cell for brain cell, soul for soul or any other way you want to scan it, Baltimore has the highest culture rate in the nation, maybe the world.

Sure, we may be only No. 2 in most dangerous cities for our size, beaten out by Detroit. With proper leadership we surely can pull ahead of Motown next year, especially if hundreds of deaths mysteriously classified as "undetermined" are determined after Tuesday election to be otherwise.

But for now, we absolutely are tops in things that really count. Like what? Like being No. 1 in the nation, probably the world, this weekend in performances of all 250 organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach.

That?s right. It starts at 2 p.m. today in Griswold Hall at The Peabody Institute.

Just in case anybody out there doesn?t get it, this is a rare, historic, world-class event.

Peabody student Felix Hell will perform the four-day, 10 concert series on the 1997 Holtkamp mechanical action organ, its more than 3,000 pipes designed and voiced precisely for the hall. According to Peabody?s Donald Sutherland, "there is not another organ like it in the world."

The institute ranks Hell, 21, as a prodigy with "staggering gifts." Frederick Swann, national president of the American Guild of Organists, said "He is undoubtedly one of the major talents of the century."

This means the experience of a lifetime. Everybody thinks they?ve heard Bach organ music. They have not. Horror movies and TV commercials don?t count. The most expensive audio system in the world cannot duplicate this.

This is music as much felt as heard. A great organ in a perfect hall played by a genius transubstantiates mere inchoate sounds into tangible being. The very air gains substance. It is an enveloping, all-consuming transcendent experience.

Attend, then ask an atheist friend: If there is no God, how can there be Bach?

I learned of this concert after an Monument Piano Trio concert at An Die Musik. These incredible artists in residence nailed works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert for about two dozen lucky people relaxing in wingback armchairs. What a venue.

So, please, young woman from Chicago interviewing for a job in Baltimore, come on down. Chicago is a pretty good huge city. Sure, it ranks only 52 in the statistically adjusted (for prison inmate rape) violent cities index compared to Baltimore?s 12.

But I?ve been to Chicago many times. I feel safer in Baltimore. You really can?t compare the lumbering behemoth of Windy City to our svelte, sassy Charm City.

Everything cultural in Baltimore is not only varied and vast, but so approachable, attainable and, uh, cheap. The full four-day Bach series is $110! The Monument Trio concert, with geezer discount, was $10.

You can walk to just about everything. A host of world-class restaurants offering every imaginable cuisine surrounds art and performance venues spanning the range of human experience.

That is what Baltimore is like, I told her, maybe with a little too much enthusiasm. The most important things about a place elude statistical rankings.

Later, she strolled Federal Hill, pausing to take in the harbor view, probably comparing Chicago?s waterfront and calculating cost to live near it.

If we could factor which place has the most of the best things about cities and the least of the worst, Baltimore would win in a song.

Frank Keegan is editor of The Examiner. He can be reached at
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