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Something New and Necessary for Orchestras

With the fate of American orchestras in the news, the National Endowment of the Humanities has recently awarded $300,000 for a symphonic project — “Music Unwound” — that dramatically explores new templates for concerts and new missions for institutions of performance.
The NEH public programs division funds orchestras once every decade or two. That the Humanities Endowment is not accustomed to dealing with orchestras, and that orchestras are not prone to apply for NEH funding, identifies in a nutshell the challenges and opportunities the new grant addresses.
“Music Unwound” funds a consortium comprising the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Louisville Orchestra, the North Carolina Symphony, and the Pacific Symphony. All four orchestras will undertake a “Dvorak and America” project that explore the ways in which culture has helped Americans to understand and define themselves. Two of the orchestras will additionally undertake a “Copland and Mexico” project that targets Hispanic audiences, and uses Copland’s Mexican epiphany (a Mexico City dance hall transformed him into a populist) as a means of discovering Silvestre Revueltas (a master Mexican composer next to whose elemental sound mosaics Copland’s El Salon Mexico is the confection of a skilled beginner).
The projects incorporate actors, a video artist, and a variety of art and cultural historians. They link to museums and universities, middle and high schools. Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha and the paintings of Frederic Church, the Mexican Revolution and the murals of Diego Rivera are among the topics at hand. Its cross-disciplinary intensity is what qualifies “Music Unwound” for Humanities funding.
“I’m a firm believer that people don’t know what they like; they like what they know,” comments Louisville Orchestra CEO Rob Birman. “‘Music Unwound’ could serve as a model for American orchestras long into the future. The landscape of the American orchestral experience is crying out for something new, something with greater impact, more context and relevance for younger audiences. ‘Music Unwound’ delivers as array of entry points through which listeners of all ages can engage with orchestras across artistic disciplines.”
Jesse Rosen, President of the League of American Orchestras, calls “Music Unwound” a project “of the utmost significance not only to the participating organizations but to the evolution of programming and audience building.”
As project director of “Music Unwound,” I was able to build upon two previous NEH initiatives I’ve directed. The first was a “National Education Project” that created a young readers book (my Dvorak in America) and interactive DVD (by Robert Winter and Peter Bogdanoff) treating Dvorak’s American sojourn as a springboard for cross-disciplinary instruction. The second was a Teacher-Training Institute (hosted by the Pittsburgh Symphony) that trained 25 teachers (grades 3 to 12) to use the Dvorak story to infuse the humanities into Social Studies, Music, and English Literature classrooms. Four alumni of the institute will partner “Music Unwound” in Buffalo, North Carolina, and Orange County (California).
The “Music Unwound” rubric is an invention of the Pacific Symphony, long a national leader in thematic symphonic programming. Perhaps the most novel of the NEH-funded Dvorak projects will be undertaken by the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra. This may be the first time an American youth orchestra has presented a thematic program with film and narration in combination with (1) classroom-style instruction for the instrumentalists themselves (who will learn about Longfellow, Buffalo Bill, and yellow journalism in the context of Dvorak’s American sojourn); and (2) visits to local high schools by the young instrumentalists (who will perform and discuss Dvorak’s American String Quartet).
A starting point for “Music Unwound” was a “Dvorak and America” program I wrote and produced for the New York Philharmonic with the participation of Alec Baldwin and Marin Alsop. That was part of a special “Inside the Music” series the Philharmonic undertook for a couple of seasons. The “Music Unwound” programs, by comparison, are not ancillary: they all fall within the central subscription series of the participating orchestras. They point eagerly to the future.

an ArtsJournal blog