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Fishman: Saving the universal language
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It’s one thing to grow up in a place like Savannah, to get your bearings, develop your values, then to move on, find success and, except for the occasional return visit to see family and friends, settle down somewhere else and quickly forget about where you got your start.

It happens all the time. And why not? There are only so many hours in the day. The world is a competitive, time-driven place. A person can only do so much.

Then there’s Joseph Conyers, a young man with a long memory, an innate sense of appreciation, a lot of energy.

Conyers, 25, is a musician, a bass player. He and his twin sister, Amy, who played cello, went to Savannah Country Day. Back when there was more local interest in classical music, Conyers played in BRAVO (Black Youth Reaching to Achieve in Vocal and Orchestral Music). He won a Dollars for Scholars scholarship. He played in the Savannah Symphony Civic Orchestra.

Then, because he was good and driven, because people such as Country Day’s Lynne Tobin (now at Interlochen Center for the Arts) told him to, because his parents did not insist he forget about music and do something more practical, because his church, Connors Baptist Church, encouraged and supported him, Conyers applied to The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, an exemplary school that accepts 4 percent of all who apply.

And he got in.

“Curtis,” said Conyers, with his trademark smile, “was heaven.”

His sister, on the other hand, went to Skidmore College, where she is getting a masters in business.

But for Conyers, Curtis was just the start. When he graduated in 1999, he played with orchestras in Detroit,  Boston, Flagstaff, Tanglewood, Aspen, Switzerland, England, Minnesota, Vienna. Two years ago he joined the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, for a 10-week summer schedule of 50 shows.

Around the same time he beat out 70 bass players auditioning for a spot in the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Symphony, where he’s now principal double bassist.

In January after being one of 35 musicians invited to audition for the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the best symphonies in the country, Conyers made the final three.

“It’s ridiculously hard to find a job,” he said. “The last time Philadelphia had an opening for a bass player was 1995.”

Hard, indeed. For last year’s 14,000 music graduates, Conyers said, there were 169 positions.

Classical music -- and therefore employment in classical music -- is in trouble, he said. City orchestras (witness Savannah’s) are shutting down. People are reluctant to leave their homes. There’s huge competition for entertainment dollars.

“We talked about it all the time at Curtis,” he said. “It’s an art we love so much. It’s such a great language that goes across the board. Right now I am really, really happy. I can’t believe I’m doing this for a living.”

But for someone like Conyers, being happy with a good job is not enough.

So a few years ago he and two friends from Country Day -- Blake Espy and Catherine Miller, who both have family in Savannah -- decided to do something about the declining state of classical music in their home town.

They are forming a nonprofit organization that will perform, teach, collaborate and conduct summer workshops.

Every Monday they “meet” in a three-way conference phone call. Espy, a violinist, is going to school in upstate New York. Miller, also a violinist, is getting a master’s at Julliard.

“We really want to try to do something to help the situation,” said Conyers. “I love classical music too much to let it die a slow death. It is the universal language.”

The group is applying for nonprofit status, starting to raise funds, and putting together a schedule.

They’ve done their homework. They put together a chamber players roster and a budget. Conyers has talked to the Savannah Friends of Music (“I applaud them”) and to the Savannah Music Festival (“They’re exciting”).

“It’s not like we want to take over. There’s room for everyone. And I don’t think anyone would say the market for classical music in Savannah is over-saturated.”

The trio, all under 26, has a few new ideas.

“We want to make a concert an event, something to go to. I mean I love Mahler and Strauss but you throw this at the ordinary person and it won’t work,” Conyers says.

“We want to loosen up the atmosphere, go with the times, start thinking outside the box. We’ve got to get the interest back, encourage interaction between stage and audience, bring the music to community centers, to the mall, to incorporate dance and theater,” he says. “We want to create something sustainable so kids won’t have to leave. Who knows? There might be another Yo-Yo Ma in Savannah.”

In the end it’s up to Savannah, Conyers said.

“I saw what Lynne Tobin did, by herself. Ultimately Savannah will decide, but if they say no at least I’ll have tried."