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Reinventing the Orchestra: The Role of Education

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the other day that, “facing chronic red ink and houses only two-thirds full,” the Philadelphia Orchestra might be undertaking “profound change.” Alison Vulgamore, the orchestra’s president, was quoted saying, “We simply can’t go on doing the same thing . . . we have to be able to experiment.”
Already, there are American orchestras in cities like Memphis and Louisville that seem intent on reinventing themselves. Elsewhere, symphonic reinvention is nascent, or merely handwriting on the wall.
It has long seemed to me that orchestras need to re-envision themselves as educational institutions. This would mean re-envisioning the content and purpose of subscription concerts: more thematic programs, more cross-disciplinary content embracing dance, film, theater, and the visual arts. One result would be a means of escape from the rigid confines of classical music. Another would be new links to museums, to high schools, colleges, and universities. An expanded mandate; an enlarged mission.
I have seen it work. Also, I’ve also just directed a three-week NEH teacher-training institute on “Dvorak and America,” hosted by the Pittsburgh Symphony, which produced new ammunition for “profound change.”
The faculty – a menagerie of colleagues and friends – comprised scholars of blackface minstrelsy, Yellow Journalism, 19th century landscape painting, and Chicago’s “White City” of 1893; of Dvorak, Anton Seidl, Stephen Foster, and Harry Burleigh. The goal was to disseminate tools for infusing the arts and humanities in the classroom. The participants were 24 public and private school teachers from all over the US, spanning grades 3 to 12. The core materials were my young readers book Dvorak in America, the pathbreaking Robert Winter/Peter Bogdanoff interactive DVD “From the New World: A Celebrated Composer’s American Odyssey” (with hundreds of pages of primary sources and many hours of music), and a “visual presentation” for the New World Symphony I co-created with Peter Bogdanoff during my years at the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
The third week of the institute was dedicated to individual projects created by the participating teachers over the previous two weeks – lesson plans and curricula they would implement in their schools.
Going into the institute, week three was a source of anxiety. With my colleagues, I worried how best to provide direction and advice to teachers many of whom began with virtually no knowledge of Dvorak or the New World Symphony. Our anxiety was misplaced. The teachers already knew how to teach.
And so Steve Kramer, who teaches Advanced Placement American History at an elite Dallas private school, created “Longfellow, Dvorak, and the American West,” an exquisitely detailed lesson plan that ingeniously applies letters, paintings, sculpture, newspaper clips, passages from The Song of Hiawatha, and excerpts from the New World Symphony. “The objective of this lesson,” Steve writes, “is to combine arts, music, and literature to show how the fine arts and popular culture . . . became an ‘American culture’ during the Gilded Age. A complementary but no less important objective is to incorporate in an Advanced Placement United States History course some music other than the jazz of the 1920s and the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s and 1960s. Dvorak and Longfellow can have a place in the AP curriculum.”
Cliff Hall, who teaches Music at an elementary school outside Philadelphia, will create a themed Dvorak concert for Black History Month, presenting student instrumentalists and singers in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Goin’ Home.” Concomitantly, the students will learn about the slave trade, Dvorak’s espousal of “Negro melodies,” and the genesis of the New World Symphony.
Lynn Riale, who teaches Literature at a Catholic girls’ school in Pittsburgh, will use passages from the New World Symphony to explore the culture resonance of passages from The Song of Hiawatha – a protean cross-disciplinary unit.
Carinna Tarvin, who teaches History in a challenged multi-ethnic Seattle-area high school, created a unit on “musical nationalism” that will introduce her kids to Dvorak, Bartok, Falla, Carlos Chavez, Silvestre Revueltas, and Thomas Mapfumo – all of whom drew upon cultures (African-Americans, gypsies, peasants, Rhodesian blacks) “that had traditionally been suppressed or ignored.”
Circling back to the Philadelphia Orchestra: the lesson plans my teachers concocted powerfully point to new and urgent roles for orchestras as educators – sophisticated roles reaching far beyond Young People’s Concerts and instrumental instruction.
In fact, if a pending NEH application is approved, five of my Dvorak institute teachers will participate in “Dvorak and America” festivals presented by the Buffalo Philharmonic, the North Carolina Symphony, and Pacific Youth Symphony – projects potently linked to middle and high schools.
Other teachers from the institute will implement their own ambitious “Dvorak and America” high school festivals in Pittsburgh and St. George, Utah, with the possible participation of local orchestras.
Challenged schools and challenged orchestras need one another.

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