Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Soundscapes

One of the most important things an arts organization can do, beyond presenting the best quality art it can to its community, is to connect with young people to introduce them to the arts and hopefully build a future audience. Today’s students will not only have a more enriched life as a result, they will also be the potential audience and contributors for the arts years into the future.

Over twenty years ago when I was involved in a Harrisburg Symphony “Tiny Tots” concert and practically everybody in the room was like three feet tall and sprawled all over the floor, I remember one of the older adults with the group of first graders talking about growing up in one of Pennsylvania’s coal towns during the depression. His introduction to classical music had a touch of magic about it. His teacher had brought in some records and a record-player – not something many of the families would’ve had in their living rooms, probably – and he remembered sitting there, absolutely transfixed by hearing the sound of a full orchestra coming out of this box. Ever since, he’s been a life-long lover of classical music. He wondered, looking around at these first-graders, whether hearing 25 members of an orchestra playing live in front of them could even approach that sense of magic he’d felt so long ago, considering how much “experience” there is for today’s kids, between TV, movies and videos (one could add computer games, now) and all the other sounds and sights that stimulate and assault us every day. How can you make a difference, any more?

One of the projects Market Square Concerts has implemented recently is a program called “Soundscapes” which takes classical music to the students, live presentations tied into an up-coming concert that work in two parts.

I had the opportunity to do one for January’s concert with pianist Matthew Bengtson, talking to the students of the Capital Area School for the Arts about Bach’s Goldberg Variations and a few of the contemporary pieces on the first half of the program. That was Part 1.

Part 2, then, was taking the students over to Whitaker Center to hear the pianist himself talk about what he was going to play and then to play a little for them. In this particular instance, he also had a guest with him, one of the composer’s on the program, Jeremy Gill, who talked about his own piece of music and then Bengtson played it for the students.

Passes and discount tickets are made available to the students and their parents to attend the concert so in effect it becomes a three-part opportunity. In this way, students may become introduced to music they might never hear otherwise.

The students at CASA are already on the path to becoming artists – dancers, actors, painters, film-makers as well as musicians. Still, the opportunity to hear live classical music is not always easily available to them. It may inspire them, reinforce their own sense of direction, perhaps even impact their own sense of artistic values by giving them something that those of us on the outside might only guess at. But otherwise, it’s possible they might never find out about it.

There were about 70 students from CASA there on Inauguration Day when I spoke to them in the sanctuary of old Salem Church where the school meets in rooms spread out across the building. My session was done in two parts – a more general introduction for all the students, perhaps tying things in with different arts and their viewpoints; then a more specific one geared toward the music students. We had thought perhaps 20 minutes or so would be a good length for each half, but the students seemed so attentive, I lost track of the time. The whole presentation went past the hour mark but they didn’t seem to notice the time. I certainly didn’t.

The second part was held on Friday, before the concert, on stage at Whitaker Center. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this one, but Ellen Hughes told me afterward it was “very cool” with 122 students in all. In addition to the CASA students, there were 40 from St. Stephens and 9 from the Nativity School, all very attentive. “You could see their attention increasing as the presentation continued” during the course of an hour, the same thing I’d noticed at my presentation a few days earlier.

Matt went into more detail about how the three etudes by Gy├Ârgy Ligeti are “put together,” the way the composer combines pitches into non-traditional chords or creates layers of sound that, in effect, move in independent tempos and create a different kind of texture than we’re used to in the standard-operating-procedures of classical music.

Jeremy was about 20 minutes late, unfortunately – the result of an accident that tied up traffic on the Schuylkill Express, coming up from Philadelphia – but he and the performer talked not only about the music but about the rare opportunity a performer has when working with a living composer, asking questions that you can’t ask Bach who’s been dead for almost 260 years.

Matt said he doesn’t want too much information, though, because it limits some of his own interpretation. Very often, what a composer will do – unless the performer is just so far off the mark – is make suggestions or comment about the vaguer details if, perhaps, the mood isn’t quite what he had in mind, perhaps bringing something more into focus that the performer might not have considered.

Recently, I heard Elliott Carter, one of the other composers on this program, discussing his music with some performers. As complex as his music is, he doesn’t seem to bother much about how exact they are – the right notes, the right rhythms. He’s more concerned about the shape of the line and the proportion of this tempo to that tempo, for instance, rather than stating “that’s too fast” or too slow. He allows the performer to bring his or her own interpretation to the piece and only made reference to things that would augment what they were doing with the notes he had written down on paper.

For many people, it’s always a mystery how somebody writes something down and then someone else can look at that, learn to play it and turn it into something you can sit back and listen to. Another mystery is how that same piece of music can be brought to life in so many different ways. De-mystifying that helps make it more accessible to new listeners, making them more comfortable with what’s happening around them.

With any luck, it will be a positive experience that will make it easier for them to enjoy a concert, whether it’s this one or a later one – or even one a few years from now. Such an opportunity is like planting seeds in a garden: some of them will take root now, some maybe later, maybe others not at all. It’s a big gamble, in a way, if you’re looking at today’s bottom line, to hope for a return on this investment of time (and money) at some point in the future. But to ignore it is only going to ensure that classical music will be heard by smaller and smaller audiences in years to come.

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The next program with Market Square Concerts will feature violinist Maria Bachmann and pianist Jon Klibonoff and there is another “Soundscape” presentation for this performance as well. This time, Truman Bullard, professor emeritus of music at Dickinson College, will return to CASA to talk about the music they’ll have a chance to hear live. He had done the first “Soundscape” of the season last November when Antares came to town with a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time: Truman did the introductory presentation, giving them the back-story on Messiaen’s war-time work, a piece composed and premiered in a prisoner-of-war camp in World War II – and then a few days later, the students had a chance to hear the four musicians of Antares describe and play excerpts from the work.

One of the special things about this next program – Saturday, February 28th, which I’ll be blogging about in a few days or so – is the world premiere of a brand new Violin Sonata written by one of the leading composers in the world today, Philip Glass. That’s right, a world premiere by a major composer right here in Harrisburg!

And our students will get a chance to experience this in a more personal, behind-the-scenes kind of way when the performers offer their part of the Soundscape the day before the concert, something that can only enhance the experience of hearing it live in concert.

- Dr. Dick

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