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WOLF IN MASCOT’S CLOTHING: Symphony’s education programs reach thousands in KC each year

An orchestra is more like a sports team than you might imagine. If a lone violinist starts a piece two beats before everybody else, you’re bound for disaster. If an athlete grandstands to the detriment of a team effort, defeat lurks. These simple truths form one of the premises of the Kansas City Symphony’s upcoming Family Concert Peter and the Wolf, Live! featuring Prokofiev’s 1936 musical fairy tale and other sports-themed works.

KC Wolf with the Symphony / Photo by Eric Williams

Narrated by actor Alex Espy, the program includes “celebrity guests” familiar to all Kansas Citians, who act out the roles of Peter and the Wolf: The Chiefs’ KC Wolf (naturally) plays the Wolf, the Royals’ Sluggerrr is the Cat, the Jayhawks’ Big Jay is the Duck, Baby Jay is the Bird, K-State’s Willie the Wildcat is the Hunter (some license had to be taken), and so forth. Heroic young Peter is played by a special mascot created by Paul Mesner Puppets to represent a sort of “average Kansas City boy.”

The brainchild of Stephanie Brimhall, the Symphony’s Education Manager, and Associate Conductor Jason Seber, the concert also includes Peter Schickele’s New Horizons in Music Appreciation, an ingenious parody of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in which sports announcers give play-by-play commentary on the music. (“And they’re off! … with a four-note theme!”). As with all of the Symphony’s multifarious education programs, the goal is to engage and inform while not diluting the mission of bringing great music of all kinds to Kansas Citians.

The Kansas City Symphony’s education department has blossomed to nearly a dozen series focused on children and families. An orchestra is, after all, a team effort, and as such is an ideal model for the kind of sharing and collaboration we try to teach our kids every day.

Jason Seber / Photo by Todd Rosenberg

“I want kids to leave a concert thinking not only that, Oh, I was really inspired by that music … but also to realize that the orchestra is in many ways a perfect example of groups that they’re in,” Jason said. “A lot of these kids play sports, so I want for them to see the correlations: the orchestra as a society, as a team that works together, where everyone has a role. Sometimes you have to be a leader, sometimes … a follower. Sometimes you have to swallow your ego and let someone else shine.”

In addition to Family Concerts, the Symphony also presents Petite Performances (infants through age six), KinderKonzerts (kindergarten through second grade), Young People’s Concerts (grades three through six), Open Rehearsals (middle school through college), and many others. Together they reach over 30,000 youngsters annually, partly with the aim of opening up minds before musical prejudices set in.

Yet the goal of an orchestra’s outreach programs these days is not simply to get young people into the Classical Series, as was generally the case for earlier models. Today’s orchestras are embracing a wide range of styles and genres, without judgment as to which is loftier or more useful to listeners.

“Our mission is to provide high-level symphonic music experiences for as much of the community as possible,” Jason said. “So if someone only comes to see us do Star Wars … or they only come to Celebration at the Station, or they only come to a Family Concert, to me that’s fine.” Of course, it’s great when the Symphony’s various series do cross-pollinate, but the ultimate goal is to make “some kind of connection,” Jason added, by bringing “all types of music to the community, to reflect what our community loves and wants.”

Stephanie Brimhall / Photo courtesy of KC Symphony

Orchestras do find, of course, that listeners who have a positive experience at one type of concert are likely to try something else: And they often find that John Williams’ film scores are not so different from something they might hear in a “classical” concert. “There are people who come back to hear other things because they have a good experience, and that’s always meaningful to me as well,” Jason said. “It’s never a reason for doing it, or a goal necessarily, but it’s always nice when it happens.”

The older concept of the “young people’s concert” was founded on the idea that the main reason an orchestra existed was to play music of the Classical Masters, and thus the goal of “auxiliary activities” was ultimately to draw audiences into concerts of Mozart and Mahler. But Americans view almost all aspects of culture differently today, even in academia: Popular styles are studied at conservatories alongside music of “dead composers,” and in 2004 the venerable Pulitzer Prize in Music broadened its eligibility criteria to include a range of popular styles. (Jazz master Ornette Coleman won the 2007 prize for his Sound Grammar, and the 2018 prize went, rather more controversially, to Kendrick Lamar for Damn.)

Thus the concept of Young People’s Concerts espoused by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic beginning in 1958, which was subsequently embraced by orchestras around the nation, has morphed. “What I loved about (the Bernstein concerts) was that they just took the standard repertoire and made it accessible,” said Stephanie, herself a highly trained classical clarinetist (and the mother of two). “Here’s this, listen to it and then let’s talk about it.” But ideas about reaching youngsters have changed, she added, as orchestras have become more sophisticated about ages and attention-spans.

Alex Espy / Photo courtesy of KC Symphony

“There’s a big difference between a five-year-old and a twelve-year-old” when it comes to listening to music, Stephanie said. (Indeed, even adult attention-spans have shortened, a nationwide phenomenon which helped spark a slew of hour-long “rush-hour” concerts.)

Moreover, she said, the Symphony has had to adapt to the demands of school systems, many of which will approve a “field trip” to the Kauffman Center only if it has some kind of “educational value” (read: math or science). “To them it means, are they going to learn about science, or are they going to learn about something they’re going to be ‘tested on’?” This might seem restrictive to some, but in the era of “core curriculum” it’s simply the world in which teachers and school systems live.

As one of the more forward-looking organizations in the United States when it comes to outreach, the Kansas City Symphony has in fact enjoyed enormous success in building relationships with schools, administrations, and students. Teachers keep coming back because the process “clicks” from start to finish.

Sluggerrr and Big J / Photo by Eric Williams

“They have a positive experience with us,” Stephanie said, “not just with the music but with everything: the way the ticketing is organized, the way they feel safe when the kids get off the bus and our volunteers make sure they’re safe. The whole experience is positive.”

Still, music remains at the center of all the Symphony does, and this extends to outreach programs. And when dealing with children, Stephanie finds that breaking through cultural prejudice is (at least) half the battle. “Kids learn everything. They’re not born with preconceived ideas or thoughts or feelings on anything. We teach them everything.” (Let’s be honest: We view Shostakovich as hoity-toity because we’ve been taught to think that way.) Thus, if an orchestra can present music in a way that is appealing and digestible, it greatly impacts the way young people absorb it. Let’s let them decide, Stephanie said. “It’s our responsibility to make it accessible, and not attach any stigmas to it: ‘This is great music: Listen to it. What do you think?’ ”

 Peter and the Wolf, Live! is on February 17th at the Kauffman Center. For tickets, and for information about the Symphony’s many education and outreach programs, call 816-471-0400 or go to www.kcsymphony.orgTo reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook or Twitter

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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