Thousands of kids hear the sounds of music.
I remember my first Young People’s Concert. I was about five, loved music and had started singing before I could say Mama. It was pre-Bernstein and one of my sister’s boyfriends – Stuart Stewart – took me to Carnegie Hall to hear the New York Philharmonic with a very old man conducting. He had a German accent and he called us “boys and girls” and told us about a piece by Beethoven. I got up and walked out. I felt insulted because he was treating us like children and I, with all the wisdom of a five year old, already knew about Beethoven.
Then along came Leonard Bernstein and the music world changed. He never talked down to us, whether we were sitting, rapt, in front of our tiny black and white TVs, were part of his live audience at Carnegie or, blessed child that I was, on stage with him and the Philharmonic, singing music by Aaron Copland. We were equals through the joy of music.
The other day I attended one of the Sarasota Orchestra’s Young Persons Concerts at the Van Wezel. The Orchestra does these for about 10,000 children in this area. That day, we were surrounded by what seemed like a zillion screaming kids who stomped, cheered and roared as conductor Chris Confessore took the podium. Would that adult audiences had that kind of enthusiasm at, um, Old Persons Concerts.
The theme of the one-hour performance was “The Orchestra Games.” Confessore kept his remarks short, to the point and never spoke down to anyone. He kept the focus of the concert on music everyone could relate to. Starting with John Williams’ well-known work written for the Olympic games in Los Angeles, he and the orchestra were positively triumphant, from opening fanfares to the celebratory conclusion, resulting in total silence during the music and a victorious cheering from the listeners at the end, just in the right place.
Rimsky Korsakov’s “Dance of the Tumblers,” from “The Snow Maiden,” came next and Confessore cleverly brought the kids into the music by asking how many of them took acrobatics. When some 1700 hands rose into the air, the conductor knew he’d reached them and began the music.
At this point, I was missing Uncle Lenny’s communicative, enthusiastic erudition that instructed us while we became wrapped up in what he was saying. But Confessore had made the right choice because the next piece on the program, “The Orchestra Games,” by Gregory Smith, taught us everything while keeping our attention with a beautifully written score that had an orchestration that Ravel (one of the greatest orchestrators of them all) would have been proud to call his own. “The Orchestra Games,” narrated from memory by the composer, dressed in a running suit and sounding as if he were having the time of his life, introduced us to all the sections of the orchestra, told a charming story that made the instruments come alive, and kept the kids at the edges of their seats.
Clever, entertaining, charming and fun, Smith’s work is becoming a staple of the youth concert circuit. It’s a terrific piece and never condescends to anyone, including the superb musicians who played it with precision and understanding.
While all this was happening, we couldn’t help but notice that the Van Wezel has invested in a new orchestral shell. It’s no secret that Sarasota’s infamous purple hall is much better equipped for amplified performances than acoustic concerts. The old shell was no help. The new one is a step in the right direction and, once the orchestra gets used to the new sound, their blend, which was heavy on the brass the other day, will improve. But, how do I say this without shouting, We Need a Real Concert Hall. Maybe someday. Maybe in our life time.
The Young Persons Concert concluded with the rousing finale of the “William Tell” Overture and it was loud enough and fun enough to have every child giddy-upping in their seats and galloping off into the sunset.