Lately, I’ve been thinking about the first time I went to the symphony, the day after I turned 12 years old. It must have been exhilarating, walking into that glamorous concert hall for the first time. How marvelous it must have been, seeing those folks onstage, all of whom seemed so ordinary, pick up their instruments and conjure sounds that were anything but. And how fascinating, to watch one man—at the time, I thought women weren’t allowed to be conductors, the same way women couldn’t be quarterbacks—stand onstage and lead them merely by waving his arms, saying everything without saying anything at all.
I wish I could say my first visit to the symphony was all these things and more. But the truth is, I only remember two things about that day: I heard Peter and the Wolf, and I was bored. That’s embarrassing to admit now, as someone who lives, breathes, and basks in classical music as an adult. But time has softened any derision. I now know that concert was geared towards much, much younger children. I left disenchanted, not inspired. Clearly, I’d missed my chance to be part of whatever that was.
When I relayed this story to conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, he nodded, smiling ruefully, and said, “You just described the reason for my entire career.” In addition to hosting the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s popular Centre Stage series, Bartholomew-Poyser serves as education and community programming lead for the San Francisco Symphony, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, National Arts Centre Orchestra, and Symphony Nova Scotia. His titles and purview vary across those posts, but they’re united by a common mantra: educational concerts deserve the resources to experiment and execute at the highest level.
“It’s critical to remember that every concert you attend is somebody’s first, last, and only concert. So, education concerts are super high-stakes every single time—it’s [usually] not a subscription concert, but you might be reaching a brand-new audience,” Bartholomew-Poyser says. “These concerts need to be better funded.”
Since returning to live, in-person performance, more and more orchestras and their creative teams are upping their education-concert game. The last two years have seen a renaissance of original, robustly produced educational programs.
Fantasias for a New Millennium
The pandemic forced classical music to bridge an intrinsic antagonism: that between stage and screen. In some pedagogical and arts spaces, those now-blurred lines can be treated as anathema to orchestras’ mission. The most high-profile educational initiatives to come out of the COVID era, however, treat the stage/screen convergence and surge in streaming less as a Pandora’s box and more an opportunity to think outside the box.
Take Philharmonia Fantastique, Mason Bates’s Grammy-winning “concerto for orchestra and animated film.” Developed in collaboration with veteran filmmakers Gary Rydstrom (Skywalker Sound, Pixar) and Jim Capobianco (Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, Fantasia 2000), the film explores timbre and instrument mechanics through the eyes of a curious, sprite-like protagonist. John Williams—no slouch when it comes to composing for film—has praised the piece, saying “in the art of marrying music with animation, Philharmonia Fantastique is the biggest step forward since Fantasia itself.”
Like that predecessor, Philharmonia Fantastique is a delightful romp, handsomely animated, and, to musical initiates, sneakily edifying. Each instrument family—strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion—is represented by a color, corresponding to the live action onscreen and helping listeners internalize their sounds, like a visual leitmotif. Philharmonia Fantastique gets more sophisticated from there: Capobianco’s animations and Rydstrom’s cinematographic sleights of hand bring viewers inside instruments, from the womblike body of a cello to a trumpet’s labyrinth of valves and pistons. In one scene, the Sprite delicately dances on specific points on a string; right on cue, the orchestra sounds out the corresponding harmonics. The harmonic series has rarely been so charming.
That sophistication was the creative team’s plan from the beginning. Buoyed by a $1 million budget—huge by classical music standards, scrawny for a motion picture—the team wanted to ensure Philharmonia Fantastique had a life beyond the youth concert pigeonhole. “This piece is a serious endeavor, in the vein of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges or Mother Goose Suite, which use vivid orchestration to conjure a world of wonder,” Bates says. “It’s really important to us that it reach people of all backgrounds and ages.”
Philharmonia Fantastique was programmed by most of its co-commissioners last season and is sweeping through multiple American orchestras, who play the score live alongside the film. At many of those presenters, Philharmonia Fantastique has been programmed on typical subscription concerts rather than on youth programs, slotting it—per its subtitle—in the concerto spot of an evening-length concert. That signals another possible strategy: incorporating educational repertoire into subscription concerts, rather than siloing it on a different series. “I don’t think there was a day where we approached [the film] like, ‘How do we make this for kids?’ It was always about appealing to a broad audience and bringing in people to hear the symphony again,” Capobianco says.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the commissioning orchestras, played the studio recording for Philharmonia Fantastique’s soundtrack and streamed version, available on Apple TV. Thanks to a long-standing partnership with Chicago Children’s Theatre, the orchestra also embraced visually driven storytelling during the pandemic in its own streamed CSO for Kids series, available for free on the orchestra’s streaming platform, CSOtv.
Among the CSO for Kids offerings was Maybe Something Beautiful (Quizás Algo Hermoso), based on a 2018 book written by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell and illustrated by Rafael López. Maybe Something Beautiful/Quizás Algo Hermoso follows a young girl whose love for art inspires her neighbors. For the video, Chicago Children’s Theatre created original paper puppetry while CSO musicians played excerpts from Miguel del Aguila’s Quinteto Sinfónico, José-Luis Hurtado’s Son de la Bruja, and Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango (arranged by Jeff Scott).
“Social-emotional learning is the guiding light of everything we create for kids,” says Jonathan McCormick, who directs the CSO’s educational and community-oriented Negaunee Music Institute. “For one, we feel work made through that lens is more meaningful to them. Second, Illinois’s standards of curriculum assessment demand that teachers think about social-emotional learning. If we demonstrate to teachers that we’re thinking about this, they’ll have a much easier time connecting the field trip to their classroom and getting approval from their administrator to go in the first place.”
The Oregon Symphony’s Symphony Storytime adapts illustrated children’s books for the small screen, pairing a symphony musician with a narrator for each episode. As the narrator reads, the musician either performs recognizable symphonic excerpts or improvises their own accompaniment to the action. Symphony Storytime is also bilingual: The Oregon Symphony has produced ten Spanish-only episodes of Symphony Storytime to date, initially narrated by former Music Director Carlos Kalmar and now by symphony percussionist Sergio Carreñas.
Russell Kelban, the Oregon Symphony’s vice president for marketing and strategic engagement, says the series’ success has exceeded expectations. Since its launch in summer 2020, Symphony Storytime has been viewed by some half a million people worldwide. “We decided to [make Symphony Storytime] bilingual because of the growth of the greater Oregon region’s Spanish-speaking population and of our mission to appeal to diverse audiences. Though designed for our own community, it went viral on a national and global scale,” Kelban says.
“Everybody is the Audience; Everybody is the Performer”
One Symphony Storytime adapts Because, a 2019 book written by Mo Willems and illustrated by Amber Ren. The book is a touching account of a young girl who attends an orchestra concert by sheer happenstance. The experience inspires her to become a conductor and composer, who in turn inspires others—and so on.
Because inspired yet another recent educational endeavor: Jessie Montogmery and Jannina Norpoth’s Because: A Symphony of Serendipity, commissioned by the Kennedy Center and the National Symphony Orchestra. (Willems served as the Kennedy Center’s inaugural Education Artist-in-Residence from 2019 to 2022.) In live performance, Ren’s illustrations are projected while the orchestra plays and a narrator and actors deliver the text. As the score’s arranger, Norpoth retooled excerpts from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and Schubert’s Unfinished to create a seamless narrative and complement Montgomery’s original music.
Jeri Lynne Johnson, the founder and music director of Philadelphia’s Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, has led Because performances. At the Ravinia Festival, Johnson told the audience that Because still profoundly moved her. “I was that little girl,” she said, audibly overcome. To conclude, Johnson invited young audience members onstage to try conducting the orchestra. Each walked away with a baton as a souvenir.
National Symphony Orchestra Artistic Administrator Justin Ellis says that achieving “parity” between performance and participation was a goal for the work from the start. Moreover, he believes in making that participation as genuine as possible—“it wasn’t just window dressing,” Ellis says. He recalls that Jeri Lynne Johnson “really told the musicians, ‘Follow exactly what the [young conductors] are doing. If they’re beating the wrong time, let them figure it out.’ It was a much more human connection between orchestra and audience.”
Sometimes, the push to engage first-time audience members neglects a key demographic: the orchestra musicians themselves. Some educational programs can seem like a slog to players with hectic schedules; predictable programming can get tedious. “It’s the repetition factor. You’re doing five performances in two days. Some orchestras do even more than that,” says composer Gregory Smith. Championed early on by conductor Marin Alsop, Smith’s interactive works for children’s and educational concerts—targeting a demographic Smith refers to as “emerging audiences”—have been performed by 180 orchestras to date. The Fort Collins Symphony commissioned his STEM-inspired VIBE in 2019 as well as his most recent work, Shave and a Haircut.
Smith’s years of experience have taught him it’s crucial to make educational programming as engaging for the orchestra as for the audience. Smith’s scores almost all allow for musician creativity within the structure or plot. He’s been known to give musicians room to improvise at certain points in the score, or ask the conductor to show off their best golf swing, as he did in his 2012 piece The Animated Orchestra. Occasionally, musicians run with that freedom in ways that surprise even Smith. He remembers one concert in which the violas, inspired by a plot point in the piece, went “on strike,” pulling picket signs out from under their chairs and marching around the stage. The moment was such a surprise that the performance briefly came to a standstill, to the delight of orchestra and audience alike.
“It’s an amazing feeling when everybody is the audience and everybody is the performer. Plus, if the audience sees the orchestra having fun, they might realize they don’t have to give their lives away to become a serious musician,” Smith says.
Bartholomew-Poyser, the conductor who heads education and community programs at several North American orchestras, agrees that those “moments of contingency” are crucial. ”Everyone in the hall should be surprised by what happens next,” he says.
Connecting with Teens—and More
Such moments were essential to the success of the San Francisco Symphony’s first-ever Teen Night, which Bartholomew-Poyser led last March as the orchestra’s Resident Conductor of Engagement and Education. The interactive program featured two Oakland-based musicians: emcee Aïma the Dreamer and Kev Choice, performing his own composition Movements. The program represented other living composers like John Adams, Anna Clyne, Arturo Márquez, Max Richter, and John Williams, as well as familiar classics ranging from the William Tell Overture to The Rite of Spring.
To determine the programming for that first Teen Night and future iterations, the San Francisco Symphony convened a focus group to gauge what high-school-age audiences might want to hear. “They wanted to hear canonical composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky. But they also wanted to hear hip hop, cool concertos, and modern stuff. We put all that in there,” Bartholomew-Poyser says. It was a success—so much so that Bartholomew-Poyser believes the San Francisco Symphony’s Teen Night could become a “vanguard” for orchestras elsewhere.
Around the same time, the symphony also released Musical Heroes, an hour-long online program similarly geared towards teenage audiences. Intended for adoption in classrooms, Musical Heroes takes a (virtual) page from the San Francisco Symphony’s Michael Tilson Thomas–era Keeping Score series on PBS by going deeper into the composers behind the music—in this case, William Grant Still, Florence Price, and George Walker. “Teenagers want to be challenged, so we need to go well beyond ‘instruments of the orchestra’ concerts—beyond the ‘what’ and straight to the ‘why,’ ” Bartholomew-Poyser says. “Teenagers are probably the single most ignored demographic in orchestral music, and when we ignore a demographic, we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t come back.”
And how crucial that mission is now, with audiences across ages rebuilding after pandemic lockdowns. The time is ripe for orchestras to invest in new audiences, whether young, grown-up, or somewhere in between. Nor is there a such thing as reaching audiences too late. Take it from a music lover who took the long way around.