WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Posts tagged ‘orchestra’

An Orchestral Tribute

March 22nd, 2011

On March 16th, the Tokyo-based NHK Symphony Orchestra performed a concert in Washington, D.C. At the last moment, their conductor, André Previn, added a movement from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3, commonly known as “Air on the G String,” as a tribute to the people of Japan. Just before the concert, the Orchestra’s Chairman, Naoki Nojima, spoke with the audience: “As we perform for you tonight we are performing for ourselves as well and for our loved ones back home.”

I found a number of things remarkable about this story: that the Orchestra chose to go ahead with their performance, despite what had occurred at home, and the choice of the piece itself, which is more tender than solemn, more likely to be heard at a wedding than a funeral. But more than anything else, I was struck by the fact that an orchestra of Japanese musicians would choose a piece written three centuries ago by a Thuringian composer as a memorial and catharsis for the great tragedy that had afflicted their nation. Rarely have I encountered such eloquent testimony to the capacity of great art to transcend time, cultures, and plight.


The recent news that Riccardo Muti, one of the world’s greatest orchestra conductors, was performing at the Warrenville, Illinois all-girl juvenile prison might have been regarded by some as little more than a public relations photo-op. But those who follow the classical music world know this is part of an important trend. Orchestras, chamber music organizations, and music presenters have long seen “outreach” as important to their missions. But for the majority, non-concert-hall activity has focused on students in school settings. Today, some of the more important musical organizations view their missions more expansively, wanting to reach and have impact on the lives of people wherever they may be found. Prisons, homeless shelters, hospitals, and hospices are increasingly important venues for making these musical connections.

In a previous On Our Minds entry, we wrote about Carnegie Hall’s Music Connections as an example of how new programs in community engagement help foster more “complete” musicians. Another benefit may be that these programs also enable arts organizations, including symphony orchestras, to expand their relevance and connection to underserved communities. Not only does this enrich the exchange between musicians and audiences, it extends the boundaries of typical arts appreciation and expands the nature of the relationship.

I have recently been conducting research in connection with the New Jersey Symphony’s efforts to develop a strategic plan for their arts education programs. In looking to identify effective educational programming offered by other orchestras, it is nearly impossible to avoid the influence of El Sistema, Venezuela’s highly successful youth education program that provides free musical training to hundreds of thousands of Venezuela’s poorest students. A number of U.S. orchestras are working to adapt the El Sistema system in their own cities, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Baltimore Symphony, and the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio. New England Conservatory has established a fellowship program, (which Tom Wolf wrote about in his article in the April 16th On Our Minds) for those interested in establishing El Sistema programs outside of Venezuela. And an El Sistema USA network has been set up to support those interested in the program. A conference was recently held in Los Angeles at which both the successes and the challenges of translating the program to the United States were discussed. Not surprisingly, the current need for “proof” of the effectiveness of the program in order to generate funder support is one of the challenges that U.S. implementers are facing. In Venezuela, financial support, which happens at the national level, is based on qualitative evaluation only. Will U.S. programs be able to model their evaluation efforts on the same foundation of qualitative research? Is collecting stories enough to convince funders to step up and contribute?  I can only hope so, as these programs introduce young people to a lifetime passion for music, and help develop future orchestra audiences.


It seems that many of WolfBrown’s clients are helping answer the question of what it means to be a productive and successful musician in the 21st century, and discovering that one of the more important components of being a complete musician now is about engaging in your community in a deep and personal way.  Recently, I’ve been inspired by programs that promote and support community engagement, including:

  • Community MusicWorks in Providence, Rhode Island supports a professional string quartet and other musicians using music to help build and transform community.
  • Weill Music Institute and Carnegie Hall’s joint program called Musical Connections takes music out of the concert hall and directly to people who don’t readily have access to live music (e.g., hospital patients, prisoners, seniors). The program also supports participating artists through its Professional Development program.
  • Carnegie Hall and Weill are also partnering with the Juilliard School and the New York City Department of Education on The Academy, a two-year fellowship program for up and coming professional musicians which helps them to develop community engagement and leadership skills along with artistic excellence.
  • The New England Conservatory (NEC) has a number of programs that focus on community, including musical entrepreneurship that WolfBrown helped design and the American version of Venezuela’s El Sistema, a voluntary musical education program.

Tony Woodcock, President of the NEC, in a recent talk at the Salzburg Seminars last month discussing NEC’s programs and innovations around professional musicians, quoted Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of the El Sistema program in Venezuela: “It is not enough for them (musicians) to love their instruments; they must also learn to love their responsibilities as citizens. They need to be apostles to the community.”  I think this pretty much sums up the importance of artists’ activity within their community – agents of social change.



The Ultimately Portable Orchestra

February 17th, 2010

Skimming through the The New York Times online video library, I happened upon a piece about a new type of orchestra born at Stanford University, and consequently, at many other places throughout the country: the iPhone Orchestra.  Not only can one make this multi-dimensional communications device a flashlight, or replicate the visual action of drinking a pint of beer, but it can now be your own portable “anything” musical instrument. What the Stanford orchestra has done is not just create a simple app (although these have subsequently been developed and are currently available), but applied their efforts to explore and stretch the capabilities of this device so that it becomes a flute, a drum circle, wind chimes, and produce many other sounds not yet imagined. Although computer-based replication of instrumental sounds is nothing new, the iPhone as an instrument may be the device that levels the musical playing field (just as the portable and then digital camera did for fine art photography) by allowing anyone to compose and play original music at the touch of their fingertips. Ge Wang, one of the founders of the Stanford iPhone Orchestra considers the ability of anyone to take up the iPhone and create new sounds to be one of the basic principles of the iPhone Orchestra, ”It’s my philosophy that people are inherently creative.  It’s not just people who think of themselves as artists.”  Our research into cultural engagement underscores Wang’s philosophy – everyone has creativity embedded in their DNA.  Compose while waiting in long lines at the DMV, or hold an impromptu jam session with friends after dinner.  The possibilities are endless.


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