January 4, 2010 — Speaking to an audience of musical novices at one of his famous Young People's Concerts, Leonard Bernstein once vividly described composer Johann Sebastian Bach's construction of a fugue as "Bach's Erector Set." Bernstein was one of the most visible and vocal advocates for introducing classical music to new audiences; his passion for music and skillful pedagogy planted the seeds in young listeners that led to a lifelong love of music for generations.
The Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra is following in Bernstein's footsteps, offering an array of programs and activities that include introducing children to the families of orchestral instruments, providing technical and artistic training to college students and community members, and offering musical insights and anecdotes through pre-concert lectures to concertgoers of all ages.
Free Youth Concerts, offered to fourth- and fifth-graders in public, private and home schools, reach more than 1,500 area students annually. Theme-based, age-appropriate programs, conducted by music director Kate Tamarkin, are often accompanied by a dynamic narrator. They cover a variety of musical topics, musical styles and composers.
In October, "Beethoven: Back to the Future" told the composer's life story through some of his best-known works, illuminating the hardships that he faced and his triumph over adversity. Audience members also learned some basic sign language to communicate with Beethoven – portrayed by University of Virginia drama professor Richard Warner – after he lost his hearing.
An offshoot of the Youth Concerts is a pen pal program pairing orchestra members with students, providing mentoring opportunities and purposeful writing assignments.
"When I came to the Youth Concert as a kid, the bassoon section stood up. Seeing the unique shape made me want to play the bassoon," local bassoonist Suzanne Reid said. "Years later, it was humbling to be seated in the orchestra, helping to present the program.
"During four years in college, my music-making was focused on the technical aspects of perfecting my craft. But returning to play in CUSO allowed me to be in the position of inspiring youth and entertaining people."
The orchestra's "Preludes" program sends professional musicians (principal players and others in the community) into area public elementary, middle and high schools to present free instrument demonstrations and master classes. Approximately 90 visits serve more than 6,000 students each year.
Students at Clark and Jackson-Via elementary schools have participated in "Art Strings," a program that links music and art, providing a more in-depth study of the violin than a "Preludes" visit affords and using art as a vehicle for expression of the students' new-found knowledge of sound and color.
There are more outreach programs. Members of the Youth Orchestra of Charlottesville Albemarle have played in a "Side-by-Side Rehearsal," led by Tamarkin. During the summer months, the orchestra has offered "Tunes and Tales," with musicians accompanying story time for young children at the Northside Library.
All of the Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra's youth outreach activities support and enhance local school music programs, address Virginia Standards of Learning and enable orchestra members to serve as teachers and mentors throughout the community and beyond.
The orchestra also offers programs for people of all ages.
For those who want to "know the score before they go," Tamarkin and U.Va. music associate professor Richard Will present informative and entertaining pre-concert lectures.
"Noon Notes" is held at the Northside Library on the Friday preceding each masterworks subscription concert. "One of the joys of being a music director is spreading the news about symphonic music," Tamarkin said. "This passion extends to listeners of all ages. The idea is not to present the most information about a piece of music, but to find the right information to whet the listener's musical appetite and to heighten his or her experience in the concert hall."
Will added, "I count the pre-concert lectures" – held in Minor Hall prior to Saturday night concerts in Old Cabell Hall, and in the Forum at Monticello High School prior to Sunday afternoon concerts – "among the most rewarding presentations that I do, and also the most challenging. While not necessarily trained in music, the audience is extremely knowledgeable about history and culture, and many have been attending orchestra concerts for a very long time.
"The trick, therefore, is to introduce the program in a way that engages them intellectually without pre-supposing any formal study of music, and that helps them to appreciate something new about even the most familiar pieces."
To reach beyond an audience that consumes large classical orchestral works, the Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra launched two additional projects. In January 2007, the Chamber Orchestra of Charlottesville, an all-professional ensemble, was established to perform works written expressly for smaller orchestras. This group travels to communities outside Charlottesville and is more flexible in schedule since it is not dependent on student participation. The ensemble's Jan. 30 concert (8 p.m , Old Cabell Hall will be repeated as part of the Valley Symphonic Concert Series in Staunton the following evening.
The full orchestra also offered its inaugural pops performance with Symphony Under the Stars, sponsored by the University Programs Council, to an audience of more than 5,000 people in the McIntire Amphitheater on Sept. 19.
Additional outreach activities during the current season include neighborhood parties that enable orchestra fans and supporters to become better acquainted with members of the orchestra in an intimate setting, and several events in conjunction with the April 24-25 premier of a commissioned work by Judith Shatin, William R. Kennan Jr. Professor of Music at U.Va., titled "Jefferson, In His Own Words."
The orchestra is even the topic of a documentary film, currently in production, by two U.Va. media studies students, who are highlighting the organization's educational initiatives and the impact its programs have on student and community members.
Masterminding many of these programs is Elizabeth "Ibby" Roberts, the orchestra's outreach coordinator, with support from the Board of Directors' Education Committee. Roberts is also the orchestra's principal bassoonist, a half-time U.Va. music faculty member and a busy freelance performer and teacher. She was nominated for the 2008 Virginia Governor's Award for the Arts for her efforts on behalf of music education and outreach.
The Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra's education and outreach programs are underwritten by Bank of America, BAMA Works of the Dave Matthews Band, Dominion Power, Target, the Wachovia Wells Fargo Foundation, the Francis J. Sheridan Fund and the Mr. and Mrs. James L. Brown Fund for Youth Concerts.