Doing it

(Writing this on Tuesday night.)

Because I have the first session of my next branding workshop tomorrow, I won’t have time to write the next installment of my posts about how to build a young audience. Which would be — will be — about how the repertoire we play needs to change.

But here’s an addition to yesterday’s post about making people feel excited and involved. It’s an email I and many others got from Anastasia Tsioulcas, about a project she’s part of at NPR, where she works. It speaks for itself, so I’ll just reprint it here:

Happy (nearly) summer, everyone!

Ever dream of participating in a world premiere of music by one of the world’s most widely beloved and celebrated composers? Here’s your big chance: yes, you, you lovely friends & colleagues. (And if you don’t want to sing, just come watch.)

To honor the 75th birthday this year of Philip Glass — perhaps the world’s most famous contemporary composer — NPR Music has commissioned Glass to create a short choral work that would be great fun for amateur and professional singers alike. Glass’ short piece is called The New Rule and features text by the medieval Sufi poet Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. We’re lucky to have one of America’s leading choral conductors, Kent Tritle, on hand to conduct. We’ve teamed up with our friends at WQXR and WNYC, along with the Make Music New York festival and the Times Square Alliance, to make this happen.

We’re inviting the public to take part in this event on June 21, which will take place at one of the world’s most iconic locations: Times Square. (We’ll be at Duffy Square, which is the little northern wedge of Times Square near the TKTS booth & stairs.) We’ll be videotaping and recording the performance for an NPR Music Field Recording.

So: Times Square, just around the time you’ll be leaving work anyway. And if you want to sing, here’s the link to the score:

You’ll be there, right? And tell your friends: the more, the merrier. RSVPs (via the link just above) very much appreciated.

Every classical music institution (and maybe even soloists and ensembles) should be doing things like this. Understanding, of course, that “things like this” covers a lot of ground, and that there’s no reason to imitate what NPR has done. Find your own way of getting your community to join you in making music.

One thought. Benjamin Britten’s wonderful opera Noye’s Fluddewhich tells the story of Noah and the ark, was written for an entire town to perform. Or, anyway, a large number of musical people in a town. Teenage girls play Mrs. Noah’s friends (her “gossips”), dozens of kids can be the animals, with the littlest kids playing the smaller ones (squealing “Kyrie eleison” as they march unevenly onto the ark).

The orchestra includes a handbell choir, which British towns would have had in 1957, when the opera was written. There are parts for beginning string players, violinists who only play on the open strings. There are parts for recorders, which many kids back then learned to play. You need a couple of grownup singers, baritone and mezzo, to be Noah and Mrs. Noah, and someone with a fine speaking voice and a decent rhythmic sense to be the Voice of God. But otherwise, it’s a piece with a part for just about everyone, including the audience, who join in singing hymns.

(The text, by the way, is a medieval mystery play, hence “fludde” for “flood.” I’ve modernized the names for simplicity’s sake.)

It really is a wonderful piece. I played the Voice of God in a production in Boston in the 1960s. (And no, that didn’t go to my head; I was a singer then, and wished I’d been chosen to be Noah. I hope my speaking voice was good enough for the role I did play!) And I loved every minute of rehearsals and performances. In the past decade, reencountering the piece on Britten’s recording, I loved it just as much.

So there’s something an orchestra or opera company could do (if they can find a handbell choir), to involve their community.

Or why not commission a composer to write a new piece that works the same way? With, maybe, some of the local rock bands, instead of a handbell choir. Or however the composer wants to do it. The possibilities are truly endless, and I’m surprised that — in Britten’s wake — pieces like Noye’s Fludde didn’t spring up all over.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    With so much emphasis on social media in our culture, I think creating classical music events that incorporate the community into the music making process is a good idea. Is the music going to be performed perfectly or in a historically-informed way? Probably not, but is there going to be an organic forming of community around making and listening to music together? I think there would be. There is a place and time for those perfectly played performances by great musicians but I see that as more akin to the art museum where people go on occasion to see a masterwork. This community approach is very much like events that occur in cities around art galleries where people engage with the artist and their work. In the city where I live (Sacramento) on the second Tuesday of every month all of the art galleries in town invite the community to come meet the artist and view their works. They will often provide light snacks and beverages (sometimes even wine, still waiting for them to provide craft beers!) and these events are wildly popular. During the summer it is difficult to find a place to park because this area of town is packed with people excited about new art, socializing and engaging with the artists. I think that moving from the museum model to the gallery model with classical music will make the music more vibrant, engaging and authentic.

    • says

      Great idea, Matthew! I’m filing that one away, and will quote what you’ve said, with full credit to you. I wonder if other cities do what Sacramento is doing. Does anyone know?

  2. says

    Now this is more like it :)

    And there are lots more works of this kind. Menotti wrote plenty of pieces of this kind. So did Hindemith.

    [and I’m surprised that — in Britten’s wake — pieces like Noye’s Fludde didn’t spring up all over.]

    Maybe you just didn’t look? :(

    The British composer Peter Maxwell Davies has created a large number of piece which combine seasoned pros with non-professional and young performers.

    • says

      Menotti? Are you thinking of Amahl? Not sure what other pieces he may have done that involve community participation, but maybe that’s my ignorance speaking. And in Amahl, the only role for someone from the community is the title role, for a boy soprano. Who, in some productions, might be a professional.

      But I’d like to focus the thinking here a little more sharply. I didn’t say that pieces of this kind don’t exist, apart from Noye’s Fludde. I said they “didn’t spring up all over.” Which in the US, at least, is plainly true.

      • Neil McGowan says

        Menotti wrote considerably more widely than Amahl, although the thanks he received for doing so was a complete zero.

        HELP! HELP! THE GLOBOLINKS! was written with the specific idea of including non-professional performers as the School Band who save the earth from the invading extraterrestrial “Globolinks” who hate music. There are parts for kid’s chorus, and kid’s marching band instruments (or indeed, any other kind of instrument you can play as you carry it).

        There are numerous other Menotti pieces for young performers.

        • says

          Thanks. Glad to know about this. It still doesn’t seem to be same thing I was talking about — in the Globolinks, Menotti is adding young musicians to an otherwise fully professional lineup. Noye’s Fludde goes much further, making the young performers — even beginners — much more central to what’s going on.

          What you said about Globolinks reminds me of something lovely I saw in a production of La Boheme years ago in Annapolis, MD. When the band came on stage at the end of the second act, it was the Annapolis High School band, and carried a banner saying so. The audience went wild.

          • Neil McGowan says

            I think you’ve not heard the Globolinks in full, then.

            Playing in the band is just one thing the kids do. They have full singing roles in addition to playing the band instruments. The whole story of the opera is how the adults have abrogated their responsibility to music, and are more than happy to suppress music entirely if this pleases their Globolink masters! :( Luckily the School Bandmistress – who is, by coincidence, a retired Russian operatic soprano! – is made of sterner stuff :)

  3. Steve Ledbetter says

    Though they aren’t as well known in the US, Peter Maxwell Davies has written a number of operas for performance by school students in the Orkneys — some specifically aimed at grade school children, others at those in secondary school. I suspect there are other such works, even by highly regarded composers (Copland’s The Second Hurricane, though that is considerably more elaborate). School music programs or community groups promoting the arts, or local symphony or opera companies could all be doing work like this — and finding local composers to create more of them;.

    • says

      Good to know about the Davies pieces. I sang in the Second Hurricane when I was in high school, in a performance at Juilliard’s prep division. Not a terrific piece, in my judgment.

      I’d be thrilled if composers were writing more pieces of this kind. And if more classical music institutions were commissioning them. Though I do know that if we look beyond opera, we’ll find a number of shorter pieces — maybe a lot — that involve the audience or the community. John Steinmetz, who often comments here, has written some. In any case, it’s something that should be encouraged.

      • Neil McGowan says

        “Opera” remains a handy shorthand for any kind of musical piece based on telling a story, though.

        • says


          You mean like a Liszt tone poem, or the Leonore No. 3 overture? Or Biber’s biblical sonatas, or the Schoenberg String Trio or Petrushka or…

    • says

      Nice. There are many programs like this, though maybe not on so large a scale. But I’ve read about many, over the years, and I’m sure Opera America could give us a long list. I’d be interested to know — without wanting to be overly skeptical — how long these programs have continued, whether anyone has carried them through year after year, rather than just doing them for a short while. I also think the part of the blog post you linked to about building a life-long love of opera — the part about people returning to it as adults, and then bringing their own children is — well, what should I call it? Faith-based thinking, maybe. We really don’t know if programs like this actually do build any longterm audience. It may seem likely, and certainly that’s an outcome many people would love to see. But in dealing with the future of classical music, I like to see solid evidence of things, and I think these programs haven’t yet lasted long enough to have produced measurable results. If I’m wrong, I’d love to hear about it!

  4. Herb Levy says

    Noye’s Fluude (& the Child’s Guide to the Orchestra) figure in Wes Anderson’s new movie, Moonrise Kingdom.

    More cameo appearances than starring roles, but present at key plot points.

    Having more serious music (of any flavor) be part of the content of a movie, actively listened to and/or performed by main characters in the story, source music used to be the term, rather than just as background accompaniment, is another way for civilians to see that “regular” people have an interest in non-pop music.

    • says

      These days, regular people (like myself) have an interest in both pop and non-pop music. One problem, when classical music is presented on film, can be a kind of gaga “isn’t it wonderful” sense, in which the music somehow is thought to transcend everyday life. That’s not convincing for many people. Or, maybe more to the point, not interesting. Our main hope, I’d think, is to present classical music as part of regular life, and let it exist alongside every other kind of music there is.

      • Paul Lindemeyer says

        That’s potentially very subversive. The classical community doesn’t like to acknowledge how much of their bread and butter comes from the mystique that they are above the rest of music. But that feeling is there, and, I think, still clung to.