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How Orchestras Can “Plug a Hole in the Curriculum”

“Music Unwound,” the $300,000 NEH initiative funding a consortium of adventurous orchestras, has two basic components. The first is contextualized thematic programming — it supports concerts that explore music from a variety of vantage points, including visual art and literature. The second is linkage — it supports connecting such programming with art museums, schools (grades 3 to 12), colleges, and universities.

The latest “Music Unwound” project was “Dvorak and America,” presented by the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra — a gifted aggregate of 100 high school musicians supervised by Southern California’s exceptional Pacific Symphony (long a national leader in thematic programming and new concert formats). The lead-up to the orchestra’s Dvorak concert included classroom presentations in three high schools and an elementary school. The concert itself comprised a first half — including a visual track and the bass-baritone Terry Cook — exploring the Dvorak story and the programmatic resonances of the New World Symphony. Part two of the concert was a performance of the symphony itself. The concert was attended by hundreds of students from the participating schools.

All four schools fall within the Irvine public school district, in which instrumental music is a longstanding high priority, thanks to support from Irvine Company. The high schools I visited all had multiple orchestras. The elementary school had both string and wind ensembles. What “Music Unwound” brought to these schools was a push toward integrating music education with music history — and also with American history and literature.

At one of the high schools, I was delighted to discover that my Dvorak presentation was attended by an American History class — whose teacher confided that the topics I addressed comprised “a hole in the curriculum.” These topics included three that I have long believed belong in any overview of the Gilded Age: Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, and the paintings of Frederic Church. It was through this music, this poem, and these paintings that Americans in the late nineteenth century saw and defined themselves. I cannot imagine how anyone could study nineteenth century American history without recourse to such iconic cultural markers.

The participating music teachers felt empowered by the “Music Unwound” experience to amplify the impressive instrumental skills of their students with something more. There is a disconnect here that orchestras can help schools to address. In the Irvine, there are already prospective plans to link with the Pacific Symphony’s Rite of Spring festival next season. The next “Music Unwound” Dvorak festival will be presented by the Buffalo Philharmonic in April.

an ArtsJournal blog