In The First Violins — At Least For One Night

Mar 23, 2014
Originally published on March 26, 2014 7:24 pm

Orchestras and classical musicians all around the country are trying to figure out new ways of reaching audiences, from playing at IKEA (the Detroit Symphony Orchestra) to hosting fantasy camps (violin legend Itzhak Perlman). The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra pioneered its own experiment Saturday night, when they invited the public to play with them, if only for a few minutes, in an initiative dubbed #OrchestraYou.

After a concert at Newark's New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) that featured Hilary Hahn as soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto, a recent Esa-Pekka Salonen piece called Giro and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, a group of about 75 players — ranging from professional musicians in the NJSO and the Los Angeles Philharmonic to students and amateurs of all ages, from white-haired enthusiasts to kids whose feet couldn't quite touch the floor — crowded into the lobby, along with a surprising number of spectators, to make our way through the "Toreadors" section from Bizet's Carmen Suite.

The only pre-performance requirements were BYOI — bring your own instrument — and a polite plea to please, please practice your part. And while the NJSO isn't the first to try out an experiment like this — the Baltimore Symphony did something similar (if more technically demanding) with Marin Alsop back in 2010, and the Pittsburgh and Virginia symphonies before that — this was both pretty local and low-stakes. So, summoning a little courage, I took up a violin I had at home and starting practicing positions on the fingerboard I hadn't seriously attempted in a good, ahem, twenty years.

Jeffrey Grogan is the ebullient education and community engagement conductor at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra as well as artistic director of El Sistema-inspired programs in Newark and Paterson, N.J. He said this initiative was the brainchild of the development and education staffs: "In many respects, this is just another offshoot of the NJSO's mission." Along with its "home" performances at NJPAC, Grogan said, the orchestra performs regularly in five different major venues across the state and, over the course of a multi-year cycle, its musicians visit and perform in all of New Jersey's 21 counties.

That sentiment was reflected and amplified by James Roe, the orchestra's new president and CEO — and also its former acting principal oboist. He received his promotion after the NJSO took a bad bet on disgraced former Brooklyn Philharmonic administrator Richard Dare, who resigned after nine days on the job. Roe took his new position in July.

"Our aim," Roe told me, "is not to have a 'broadcast' mentality, but to find ways to enjoy music together, really side by side. And this seemed like a perfect way to help accomplish that."

Before Grogan began conducting us — with a brief, three or four-minute "rehearsal" preceding the performance — Hilary Hahn was invited to speak to the assembled musicians and audience members. She noted that among her own most cherished teachers is the composer Jennifer Higdon, who taught a class on modern music while Hahn was a student at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. "She opened my ears to 20th-century music," said Hahn, who has gone on to collaborate closely with Higdon. The undercurrent? You never know where a shared love of music might lead.

"Les Toreadors" is a piece that offers obvious benefits: one page long, not too hard, very well-known and a surefire crowd pleaser. (While I was making my way through the crowded lobby toward my seat with violin and bow in hand, a couple of concertgoers stopped me to ask what we would be playing. When I told them, they replied, without irony and in absolute unison: "Ooooooooh!") And it was amazing to see how much of the audience stayed after the concert to cheer on the assembled forces.

To the relief of all present and for the historical record, you can't see or hear me at the back of the first violin section, at least in the video that's up on YouTube. Note to the nice young woman who was my stand partner: You're a talented musician with wonderful tone and excellent articulation — and you covered up my faking very gracefully and graciously. Thank you. And to the lady who won the benefit auction at intermission to play the triangle part: Your $550 was well spent.

After the last notes sounded, I wandered through a sea of stands to chat with a trio of beaming bassoonists: 19-year-old Jessica Hughes, who also studies clarinet with NJSO clarinetist Andy Lamy; 15-year-old Natangel Robinson, who has been playing bassoon for all of seven months; and Cecilia Sweeney, an older amateur. ("Let's just say that unlike Natangel, I'm not in high school.")

Robinson told me that playing with this group, even for literally just a few minutes, was simply amazing. "I got such a feeling of ... euphoria," he told me, searching for just the right word. "There's nothing like this. There's so much energy here, so much of a sense that you're part of something much bigger than yourself."

If this kind of effort catches fire either in New Jersey or nationally, all the better. Not only was it incredibly fun, but it served as a good reminder that music-making shouldn't be divided into producers and consumers, with most people locked into a passive experience. After the performance, I was talking with Lamy when Charlene Green, the assistant head usher at NJPAC, came over to us, smiling. She turned to the clarinetist and said, "This makes me want to dust off my clarinet."

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Orchestras around the country are looking for novel ways to turn people on to classical music: from playing in big box stores to hosting fantasy camps. Well, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra came up with another tactic. They're attracting audience members by including them in the performance. It's an initiative dubbed Orchestra You. So NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas took them up on it. She dug up her old violin, rusty skills, and joined other amateur guest players.


CORNISH: All right, Anastasia, let me get this straight. A professional orchestra said anybody who wants to come and play a concert with us, show up?

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Well, that would be awesome, but not quite how it worked out. This is a one-night experiment that they tried out as part of their community outreach efforts. And, Audie, it wasn't the main show of the night. It was after actual a real concert with the very prestigious violinist Hilary Hahn as their soloist. But yeah, it was a very casual thing. The New Jersey Symphony put out an invitation for anyone who wanted to come play a little bit of some very famous music, as we can hear, from the Bizet opera "Carmen."

CORNISH: Now, have other orchestras tried something like this?

TSIOULCAS: Well, pretty much every professional orchestra has tried some sort of outreach these days. The Detroit Symphony, for example, sent some of its musicians to a local Ikea store a few months ago to play Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" in, perhaps, a less than joyous location, right?

CORNISH: Yeah. The scent of meatballs wafting over the orchestra.

TSIOULCAS: Yeah, exactly, and cinnamon rolls and all the rest - as a, yeah, to get people to their community concerts. And back in 2010, the Baltimore Symphony and their conductor, Marin Alsop, put something together that was pretty close to the New Jersey idea. But then Baltimore took it one step further and they put together a weeklong fantasy camp for amateurs who really want to live the dream.

CORNISH: All right. So back to New Jersey, I mean, how did they deal with the different ability levels, right, of these random people showing up?

TSIOULCAS: So it wasn't quite a free-for-all. You had to have a ticket for the concert, to begin with, and the New Jersey Symphony made a couple of stipulations. You should tell them that you were coming and what instrument you played. And they made one very polite request. They said, please, please try to practice the music before you actually show up.

And I have to say, people really put their hearts and souls into it. We wound up with this incredible mix of about 75 players, everyone from real professionals from the New Jersey Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as well as a bunch of students and young professional musicians, and a whole lot of amateurs. And they ranged in age from middle school kids and high school kids to older, rustier types like me.

CORNISH: Rustier? Doesn't sound like it.


CORNISH: Anastasia, this sounds amazing. I mean, I'm trying to imagine you, like, hauling your violin out and practicing frantically. I mean, what did this actually feel like to be up on stage?

TSIOULCAS: So it was just great to get out there and play, which kind of makes me sound like a retired ball player or something.

CORNISH: It does.


TSIOULCAS: And I did a lot more faking than I would have liked. I found out about it just a few days beforehand and there was a lot of frantic, last-minute practicing and pretzling my fingers into positions they really have not been in in like 20 years. But I cannot help but think of what this one 15-year-old bassoonist I met said to me after we wrapped up and he and I were chatting. And he said, you know, when you're surrounded by dozens of people, all of you working together to make the same music, you feel just euphoric. And I think that was exactly the right way of saying how the whole evening felt, not just for those couple of minutes that we played together.

CORNISH: But in what way?

TSIOULCAS: Well, you know, I think sometimes performances can be a little bit of transactional experiences. You know, you pay your money, you expect to show up and be entertained and then you leave. And I think for performers, too, yes, they're there to be creative but they're also there to perform a job. So there's this very clear divide, normally, about who are the creators and who are the consumers. But what was really nice about this, for me, at least, was that we were just all there to enjoy music together.

CORNISH: So do you think the New Jersey symphony is game to repeat this experiment?

TSIOULCAS: Well, I definitely hope so for myself because I clearly have some more practicing to do.

CORNISH: Anastasia, thanks so much for talking with us.

TSIOULCAS: Always such a pleasure, Audie. Thanks.



CORNISH: Applause for NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas and other amateur musicians who joined the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.