Youth Concerts: A Critique

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Last November I took part in a series of Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) Family Concerts. We put these concerts on under the rubric “Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.” The musicians of the CSO are invited to play or not as they wish; payment for these jobs is over and above our base salary, since they take place concurrently with a full subscription concert schedule. If not enough actual CSO musicians sign up, the orchestra is augmented with freelancers. To save money, there is only one rehearsal and we play with a reduced orchestra; about six players are cut from each string section. Since the wind, brass, and percussion players are all responsible for their own parts, they are on stage in full force and they overwhelm the strings when they are called upon to play loudly.

The show was pretty good, as far these concerts go. We had a celebrity guest, a man named Geoffrey Baer who is frequently on WTTW, the Chicago PBS station. On his TV show he tours local landmarks and shares his considerable knowledge of Chicago lore. The concert was called “Downtown Sounds” and the unifying thread was to tie the music we played to places in the city. For example, Smetana’s great tone poem “The Moldau” supposedly described a water taxi ride on the Chicago River. A movement of Ibert’s “Paris” Symphonic Suite, entitled “Le Metro,” was used to represent the El. The famous “Sunrise” that opens Strauss’s “Also Spracht Zarathustra” was summoned to bring to mind the mighty Chicago skyline. And so on.

As is often the case in these programs, the theme of the show was at cross-purposes with the music. The kids were never informed about what had actually inspired the music they heard; all of the pieces were retrofitted to the Chicago theme. There was a silhouette of the Chicago skyline created with shadows on the wall behind the stage. To make this visible, it was necessary to darken the stage, and so we were given stand lights. I find this a bit puzzling. I would hope that the point of doing these shows is to introduce young people to the orchestra. Why put the musicians in the dark, and hide them behind stand lights? To our management’s credit, the lights were turned up a bit on the second day after I wrote an email addressing this issue.

The kids certainly seemed to enjoy the concert, although my sense was that there was often a discernible rumble of conversation while Mr. Baer and the conductor Scott Speck (who is perhaps most famous for having written the book Classical Music for Dummies) were talking – despite the fact that they were both quite skilled at relating to the young audience. While I may not be entirely unbiased, I believe it was the music that really grabbed the kids.

So were these concerts successful? I am not sure how to judge. As far as I know, a very simple question has never been asked: What is it exactly that we wish to accomplish in these concerts? Is it to entertain and to amuse? Is it to give a young audience a favorable impression of a trip to Orchestra Hall? If so, then the concerts were a success. Both the adults and kids applauded enthusiastically at the end.

But I would argue that the Chicago Symphony should not be in the business merely of entertaining a thousand or so kids for an hour. Any number of video games can do that at least as well as we do. It seems to me that our role in this society is to ensure that classical music survives into the future long beyond our own life spans. I believe that everything we do should serve that goal. And I do not see how this was accomplished with “Downtown Sounds.”

I noted earlier that the conductor, Mr. Speck, authored Classical Music for Dummies. I have played and spoken at concerts in school gyms and auditoriums all over Chicago during the past three decades, and I have learned that it is all too easy to underestimate the intelligence of young audiences. There is no need to dumb down the programs; indeed what works best in these situations is to play great music (the quartet I currently play with has Beethoven, Dvorak, Schubert, Mozart, Ravel, and Shostakovich in its repertoire for these concerts) and to perform it at the highest possible level.

I regret that I did not sense the same respect for the audience’s intelligence at this show. For example, before the Ibert, the kids were told to imagine riding on the El, and asked to determine when their El ride was “smooth” and when it was “bumpy.” They were instructed to bounce up and down in their seats when it was “bumpy.” So they were thinking about bouncing up and down, and maybe they were thinking about riding on the El. One thing we made no effort to get them to think about was the music itself, beyond this oversimplified distinction between “smooth” and “bumpy.” It seemed that we had lost track of the thing that we were actually presenting.

This is not the only way that we are selling the kids short. When we throw together these shows on one rehearsal, with an undermanned orchestra augmented by freelancers who perhaps have never played together before, we are again denigrating the intelligence of our audience: “They won’t know the difference.” In my experience, this is profoundly wrongheaded. I have found that when I help to create a concert for children, the most important element in our success is the quality of the performance.

The same week that we played these concerts, we played the Bach Brandenburg Concertos for our subscription concerts in the evenings, featuring wonderful virtuosic turns by many of my colleagues and by an astonishing young harpsichordist in the Fifth Concerto. The conductor was articulate and charming. Surely we could have played some of the more athletic and immediately appealing movements from those works, and given the children a far more nourishing experience.

So why can’t we experiment with fashioning youth concerts out of the repertoire we are playing in the same week for subscription concerts, featuring the actual Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music that has been adequately rehearsed? I realize that there will have to be schedule changes to accommodate this. Perhaps children’s concerts could replace some of our Sunday afternoon concerts. Or we could schedule these concerts on the weeks when we put together our subscription concerts on three rehearsals – such as the weeks that feature “After Work Masterworks” concerts early on Wednesday evenings. We have never been able to sell that series anyway; the Gallery, the Terrace, and often much of the Upper Balcony are unsold for “After Work Masterworks.” Why not trade them in for a Thursday morning youth concert? We have contract negotiations coming up; I can hardly imagine this would be among the most difficult issues to hammer out.

No doubt, there are many viewpoints on what constitutes a successful youth concert. But may I make a modest proposal? Why don’t we play really great music, play it extremely well, and find somebody who can convey to the kids a profound love for and commitment to this music? When my quartet goes into the schools, we find this formula to be quite successful.

About the Author

Max Raimi plays viola with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but he is also a prolific composer. He has received commissions from many ensembles and institutions, including the Chicago Symphony, the Library of Congress and the American Chamber Players. In February 1998, his Elegy for 12 violas, harp, celesta and percussion was performed at three CSO subscription concerts conducted by Daniel Barenboim.
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Discussion

  • Dear Max,
    what a wonderful piece! Thank you!
    I would like to add, that it is extremely important for an orchestra play in acoustics that are suitable for an orchestra to sound its’ best. An orchestra is a sound machine, by definition. What makes an orchestra experience exceptional is the sound of great music played at a high-level. When (often half of) an orchestra goes to a dry multi-purpose gym/high school auditorium or a muddy church and plays under-rehearsed programs as so-called “community concerts”, somehow believing that the community won’t notice feeling underwhelmed, we send a pretty arrogant message to the community: “We are great, because we are famous. We assume you’ll be impressed by this sound but if you aren’t, it’s due to your lack of music education, plus: we’ll never know. Aren’t you grateful that we came to you? Bye now!”

  • Thanks for such an insightful and well-written piece. It is essential to do something about the double standard that exists between concert experiences for adults and concert experiences for children.

    Best wishes,
    Scott Rogers

  • It seems to me that ‘star orchestras’ like the Chicago Symphony should not be bothered by community work, or youth concerts, because a better and more direct and probably more profound impact can be achieved by chamber music, in an intimate setting (we know what happens when we put a crowd of children together). When children got accustomed to classical music in this way, and got used to the sounds and musical narratives and the requirement of concentrated listening, they would be ‘ripe’ for a normal orchestral concert. Sometimes one gets the impression that orchestras feel they have to justify their position (financial, social, cultural) by helping building the bridge to new generations, while in fact that is not their job, other instrumental groups / organisations can do that better. That is why Mr Raimi’s last sentence brings the point home very clearly: indeed, a string quartet is in a much better position to offer an appropriate introduction to the art form to children.

  • Mr. Raimi:
    I really appreciate and totally agree with your article.
    Also the contribution of Mr. Borstlap it’s very interesting, he puts over the table a brillant topic that left me thinking a lot about it.
    I think depply that underestimate kids and young people it’s a great mistake. We all know that they absorb things better than us for many reasons, one could be that they don’t have a preconception of what they are perceiving, etc…, and consequences will be forever because they are “building” they values.
    I’m personally not a former, and one of the main reasons it’s because I’m always feel afraid to fail into the formation of kids. It’s a giant challenge.
    Christian Natta

  • I agree! Good article. Present kids with the real thing, keep standards high. Additional suggestion–keep kids’ concerts shorter with single focus.

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