A piece for the whole community

Another post I made to the Orchestra R/Evolution blog, again suggesting a way for orchestras to get more involved with their communities. Here it’s another “solutions” post.

Does anyone know Britten’s marvelous opera, Noye’s Fludde? It’s the story of Noah and the ark, with a text from a medieval mystery play. And it’s written for the musicians of an entire town to perform. Noah and Mrs. Noah need to be trained singers, Noah ideally an accomplished professional. The voice of God is a speaking part, and thus can be done by a community personality without musical training.

Teenage girls play Mrs. Noah’s coterie of gossips. Children play the animals, with the youngest ones playing the smallest animals, like mice. The moment when they make their entrance, squealing “Kyrie eleison” at the top of their little voices is always a high point of any performance.

The orchestra includes a handbell choir (apparently found in many British communities at the time Britten wrote the piece). And it has parts for beginning violinists, who only play open strings.

Why doesn’t an orchestra create a piece like this today? Find a composer to write it, and involve as many people from the community as possible. The musical range would be different from what it was in Britten’s time — we’d have to make room for nonclassical musicians. But the principle would be the same.

It would be especially interesting to have some of the piece written by people in the community, maybe by bringing in Jon Deak (the former assistant principle bass of the NY Philharmonic), who does spectacular workships in which kids and adults learn how to compose. The results, as I’ve observed first-hand, are miraculous.

One variant of this idea was done very successfully by the Houston Grand Opera. They commissioned Chris Theofanides to write an oratorio (“The Refuge”) about immigration and refugees. It involved immigrant and refugee communities, who contributed some of their own music. From everything I’ve heard, it was a great success. Chris certainly thinks so.

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  1. Bill Brice says

    I remember Noye’s Fludde from an old recording I haven’t seen or heard in years. It’s one of Britten’s best, and deserves to be seen and heard a lot more. I believe the text is straight out of a medieval English miracle play. It freely mixes explicit Christian references into the Jewish story. I remember that Britten’s instructions are that the children construct a paper rainbow to be hung over the stage (altar?) for the end.

    I wish more composers took a similar interest in creating events like this for non-professional performers. I would think it could be an inspiring artistic challenge to create an engaging musical experience that’s accessible to community/student organizations.

  2. says

    Hi Greg,

    The recently-launched NOI Challenge invites musicians to submit videos of their own performances to our Facebook page and win a chance for some prizes, including t-shirts, free tickets and complimentary music lessons. The pieces to be submitted for the contest include Paul Dukas’ “L’apprenti sorcier” and the clarinet passage from Brahms’ “Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90.” Participants can download the sheet music and find additional details about the contest here:


    Andrew Zender

    Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

    Hi, Andrew. Thanks for this. Nice idea.

    I’d be curious to know how you’re publicizing this.I’m assuming that a key part of your target audience would be high school students, people who might be thinking about where to go to college to study music. I know that’s the target audience for other things on your NOI site.

    So how are you reaching them? Do you have an active core — even a small one — of high school students who’ll spread the world to their friends? That’s one good way to encourage something to go viral.

    Good luck, however you’re promoting it. Come back and tell us how you made out!

  3. says

    Since James Conlon became Music Director, L.A. Opera has been doing Noye’s Fludde every couple of years in the Los Angeles Cathedral, and it’s been a huge success. In alternate years they do other community projects: the Play of Daniel, or a staged Handel oratorio. Church choirs, high school string players, children’s choirs, and community performers join in. The audiences are huge and enthusiastic. Oddly, performances like this may not get much press coverage, because critics don’t usually cover events involving non-professionals. This is another aspect of the classical music world that needs to change.

    As a composer, I’ve been collaborating with pianist/conductor Eric Stumacher on projects to combine professionals and non-professionals. None is as ambitious as the Britten, but I have been astonished at how much positive energy is released by collaboration across skill levels.

    One recent project is “Together,” for orchestra and beginning string players. The student players play an 8-bar first-position melody in unison, in canon, pizzicato, in different tempos. The orchestra plays an introduction and then accompanies that melody in different ways, so the piece is like a set of variations. At one point a drone can be extended into an optional section, with local traditional music played over the drone. Near the end the melody is sung, and at the very end the audience joins in the singing.

    In Amman, Jordan, the Amman Symphony Orchestra invited beginners from a local private high school, the National Music Conservatory, and a refugee camp; and Conservatory faculty members played the optional section as an improvisation on oud and qanun. In Keene, NH, the Keene Chamber Orchestra was joined by students from the local elementary school strings program; the optional section was played by a fiddler and keyboard player prominent in the area’s contradance tradition. Both performances drew large audiences (everyone wants to see their children play with the orchestra) and ended with a wonderful feeling of connectedness in the room. (Both concerts started with standard classical works.)

    On a much simpler level, Eric has been performing my Etude for piano and audience. It’s a short piece; the audience claps simple rhythms along with the piano, a little bit like an audience clapping along at a folk or pop show. This very basic participation has evoked so much enthusiasm that we’re talking about more kinds of Etudes.

    I’ve heard about projects in England that have schoolchildren compose music that they later will perform with professionals from an orchestra as part of a larger piece. In imitation of this I wrote “One and Many” for the Apple Hill Chamber Players, and I tried out lots of kinds of participation, too. Two of the five movements were composed and performed by children using found objects. Local musicians–professionals or advanced students or amateurs–joined in for the last movement. Community members played small bells (no music training needed). A drone instrument with super-large vibraphone bars, could be played by anyone: once the group’s taxi driver played, and once, at a concert in Israel, an Israeli student, a Palestinian student, and an American diplomat played the drone instrument together.

    This kind of piece can create a lot of good will in the community. Why doesn’t it happen more? Probably because most classical music organizations don’t think of it, because it’s outside their usual role. It’s unfamiliar turf. But there’s a chance here to unleash a lot of enthusiasm. I’m with Greg; I’d like to see lots more examples.

    Terrific, John. Thanks for sharing this! You’ve mentioned these pieces of yours to me in other contexts — or was it here on the blog? Anyhow, I’d love to hear them. Seems like they’d be perfect for YouTube.