The Great Falls Youth Orchestra, Midori, and the Future of Music
If you want encouragement about the future of music, spend some time around youth orchestras. I had a wonderful experience on March 29-30 in Great Falls, Montana. For 2 one-week residencies every year, the extraordinarily generous violinist Midori immerses herself in a small community (for which she dramatically reduces her fee, by the way), performing on its orchestra's subscription concert, and working with that orchestra's affiliated youth orchestra. She also visits schools and coaches chamber music, spending so much time with so many young musicians that one feels there must be two of her...
I watched her and the Great Falls Symphony's music director Gordon Johnson rehearse the Great Falls Youth Orchestra (operated by the Great Falls Symphony) and then give two performances - one in the afternoon for middle and high school students, and one in the evening for adults. They played with astonishing nuance and flair - and what was fascinating was the effect that Midori had on these young musicians. A few words about this or that detail, and the improvement was palpable. The intensity with which they listened and reached both to her and conductor Johnson was genuinely exciting to witness.
Although the youth orchestra is situated in Great Falls, it is the only full symphonic youth orchestra affiliated with any of the professional orchestras in the state, and many of its members travel from far away - a few drive, every Sunday for rehearsals, 150 miles in each direction! (You can drive at age 15 in Montana). The degree to which these youngsters so obviously love what they're doing, the commitment they bring to it, is inspirational.
The concert for students was fascinating. The hall seats over 1,700 and was just about completely full. The young audience sat through the concert with a silent attention that we hope to find (but don't always) in our adult subscription audiences. And they stood, yelled, whistled, and cheered Midori after she played the first movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto (it was a shortened concert, so she couldn't play the whole thing). Listening to them talk to each other as they left the hall, it was so clear how much they enjoyed it. Here was a perfect concept - kids playing for kids they call it - an audience seeing an orchestra of their peers on stage. That evening, the hall was over ¾ filled again - with more students (a few school orchestras came) and lots of families, and they played the concert again. The evening concert, in fact, was a bit longer and just as enthusiastically received. Midori was greeted with a shouting ovation even before she played a note, and after her Mendelssohn the audience, which again had been silent throughout the music, reacted in the way we associate with rock concerts! This was really a goosebump-producing experience.
The next morning, I accompanied Midori as she coached a chamber orchestra and a string quartet from Charles Russell High School. We would be in much better shape if music education in the public schools around this country were as it is in Great Falls. This public high school of 1500 students has 700 of them in a music program. They have three orchestras, nine choruses, four symphonic bands, and a jazz band! And they tell me the other high school in Great Falls is similar, except that it has four orchestras. Midori worked for an hour with the chamber orchestra on Grieg's Holberg Suite, coaxing more and more characterful playing from the kids, prodding them to listen to each other - to get beyond playing the correct notes and to make true chamber music. Then she worked with the school's string quartet (imagine - a public school with a student string quartet!) on a Mozart quartet. In both cases the young musicians were like sponges - the more she stretched them, the more they loved it. And the music-making just kept growing.
That was followed by a two-hour master class that Midori held for three violinists who came from across the state. She worked with each one for about 45 minutes, again stretching their musical imaginations. She didn't work on technique very much - what she did was get them to more deeply understand the character of the music. She frequently demonstrated with her own playing - but she didn't try to force her interpretive views on them. "What do you feel here?" she kept asking; "What do you think the music is trying to communicate?" "What does it evoke inside of you?" And she would not provide answers even if a long silence ensued; she kept encouraging them while stretching them - it was remarkably effective teaching.
One has to pay tribute to Midori, who gives of herself in a remarkably generous way, conveying to these young musicians the passion and emotional core of symphonic music. And one also has to pay tribute to the Great Falls Symphony, which invests a lot of time and energy (and dollars) in its youth orchestra, and in working with the schools in Great Falls. This defines being a true community resource.