A few months ago, Alex Ross published a perceptive article ("Learning the Score," in The New Yorker, September 6) about the state of music education in the United States and what sorts of changes in the relationship of American society with music might prevent or reverse the much-discussed demise of classical music. In this article Alex especially praises groups that do "more than bring music to young people, [...] in which the distinction between performing and teaching disappears":
Many orchestra administrators cling to the idea that a smattering of Young People's Concerts will indoctrinate children into the wonders of classical music. Sarah Johnson, who runs education programs at the Philadelphia Orchestra, is skeptical of that approach. "Many people say, Wow, we can bring twenty-six hundred students into the hall,' and feel like it's a great thing," Johnson told me. "This may have worked in the age of Bernstein, when classical musicians were celebrities on radio and early television. Today, those kids need to meet the musicians, find out how they got into music, what else they do when they're not playing. It has to be more up close and one-on-one. People have this picture of musicians as not quite human. We need to humanize them. We want to get to the point where we are cultural partners at certain schools, practically giving them a new music-faculty member."In our neck of the woods, we are hoping for exactly this sort of role for one of the results of the sweep of gentrification along the H Street corridor at the northern edge of Capitol Hill, the Atlas Performing Arts Center. A bold group has transformed an old movie house in the 1300 block of H Street NE into a "community-based venue for training and education in the performing arts and stagecraft," with two lab theaters, two larger stages, and a dance center.
On Sunday afternoon, at a family concert offered by the resident Capitol City Symphony (born out of the ashes of the Georgetown Symphony Orchestra), Master Ionarts and I had a chance to take a look at this magnificent new venue. On the outside the Atlas may not look like much quite yet (driving by, I had not really noticed it), but once inside we were both truly impressed. We arrived early enough to take in the "Instrument Petting Zoo" that preceded the concert. This was not like the event hosted by the NSO Kinderkonzert series, which Master Ionarts has also attended. At the Atlas, the musicians of the CCS (all dedicated volunteers) stood at various points around the auditorium and entrance hall, with the instruments. Kids and adults could walk right up to them, and they would answer questions, give demonstrations, and let children (carefully) try to make musical sounds.
The concert itself was devoted to composers who had resided for at least some time in the Washington area, with a map in the kids' programs to trace where they lived. This was presented by music director Victoria Gau as a playful rebuttal to a character named Prof. Henry B. Wigglewhatum (played with appropriately haughty bluster by Scott Kenison), who insisted that all good music comes from Europe. It is never pleasant to see one's profession skewered on stage, but this is ultimately unfair to poor musicology, now almost 80 years after the death of Oscar Sonneck. Whether the concert proved the superiority of American music, and specifically of Washington composers, depended on the piece in question. The level of playing was what one would expect of a community orchestra made up of volunteers, mostly fine and generally enthusiastic. By comparison, the NSO Family Concerts cost more -- children are not free, as with the CCS -- but the quality of music played is higher. The rapport with the musicians, however, is much less relaxed than at the Atlas.
Master Ionarts particularly enjoyed the P. D. Q. Bach selection, Fanfare for the Common Cold (Peter Schickele spent part of his youth living here), with the brass sneezes and coughs. His favorite, however, was the final selection, an arrangement of famous songs by Duke Ellington, the greatest composer Washington has produced, edging out John Philip Sousa by a hair. Master Ionarts enjoyed the latter's Washington Post march, too, which was conducted by young Griffin Lerner, who had won the chance to conduct the orchestra. We both enjoyed an unusual movement, The Detour, from Charlie Barnett's Blue Chevrolet symphony, inspired by the composer's childhood memories of car trips. Maestra Gau did a good job of linking the pieces together with narration and explanations. The CCS may want to start specifying an age minimum for these family concerts, as we were distracted by two toddlers who were mysteriously allowed to run back and forth along the edge of the stage for the entire duration of the concert.
The next event with the Capitol City Symphony is the annual Community Carol Sing, a free concert for all ages at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, on December 17 at 5 pm. Master Ionarts has insisted that we attend.