By Leah Hollingsworth | From the March-April 2023 issue of Strings magazine
It was a gray, rainy day, and the lobby of Alice Tully Hall was filled with long lines of children waiting eagerly to try a violin, viola, cello, or keyboard. Each station had two or three instruments and was run by a Juilliard undergraduate. Sounds of kids banging on the keyboards or tentatively playing stringed instruments filled the room, and “Twinkle” echoed endlessly as the instructors managed the left hand while the children bowed the instruments.
Everyone was there for the opening concert of Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s 2022–23 season of “Family Programming.” I talked to at least a dozen people, and most were there for the first time—either their kid had just “aged into” the concert experience (most seemed between five and ten) or they had not ventured back into the concert hall because of the pandemic. One family I spoke with had been coming for five years (their child was now 11), but they seemed the exception rather than the rule.
The concert began with narrator and emcee Bruce Adolphe posing a question: “Can music tell a story?” Right away he solicited contributions from the audience—a main character, a second character, a problem, a solution—and then improvised a story on the piano based on the suggestions. He was funny and engaging, and it was a great start to the program. As the concert progressed, there was more music loosely tied to the theme—a scene from Swan Lake, followed by a movement from Schumann’s Marchenbilder for Viola and Piano, Op. 113 (sadly, it was hard to hear the violist), and the Allegrofrom Janáček’s Pohadka for cello and piano. Talking was mostly kept at a minimum between the selections. They were comically introduced and presented, but that was it—no “listen for this theme” or “think about what kind of a story this movement might be telling.”
The two longest works on the program were both written and narrated by Adolphe himself and were brilliant pieces of music: The Nightingale for violin and narrator, performed dazzlingly by Kelly Hall-Tompkins, and Little Red Riding Hood for mixed ensemble and narrator. Both of these pieces demonstrated that, indeed, music could tell a story—with a narrator. I found the messaging a bit mixed and the theme not well developed in the program, but the children around me were riveted. Everyone I spoke with enjoyed the performance and, in a way, the music was simply able to speak for itself. Perhaps the framing that I had thought necessary could actually be a nuisance? The kids, after all, wanted to hear the music.
Chamber Music Society (CMS) will offer two more concerts like this one in the coming season, as well as two sets of CMS Kids concerts, which offer a variety of accommodations aimed at crafting a good experience for neuro-atypical kids with sensory or developmental issues. They provide a helpful preconcert guide that parents can go over with their kids so they know what to expect, and there are “down-time” areas where kids can go during the performance if they feel overwhelmed.
Just a few blocks away, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute (WMI) serves more than 6,000 people each season through family programs, and close to 900 people attended their “String Fling Family Day” on a beautiful fall Saturday in November 2022—just one of myriad options offered for families and children of all ages through WMI
The String Fling was well organized: when we arrived, we were warmly greeted by red-shirted Carnegie Hall staff and volunteers at every (confusing) turn and twist of our way as we navigated through multiple elevators, floors, and even the outdoor terrace en route to the various stations of music. “Mainstage Performances” were presented every hour by a West African group led by Yacouba Sissoko interspersed by interactive capoeira demonstrations by Afro Brazil Arts. Yacouba Sissoko did well teaching about traditional African instruments—but the best was listening to them play and watching the children respond enthusiastically to the lively rhythms. Parents and children alike danced in front and at the back, the floor packed with seated audience members by the final show and the chairs lining the periphery of the room full.
Afro Brazil Arts presented interactive workshops in a separate room, where kids learned rhythms as dozens of traditional instruments were passed around to try—sounding a bit like controlled chaos with the percussive instruments outperforming the melodic. Another floor offered two additional workshop rooms (in the hallway between the rooms, coloring stations featuring outlines of traditional African instruments were set up). One, called “Conduct Us,” in which two string members of the PUBLIQuartet talked about their instruments, demonstrated a variety of excerpts (from Moana to Vivaldi), and then invited children up to conduct them in an improvisation. The musicians did a fantastic job both educating and entertaining the audience, and all the kids were as engaged in listening to the talk as they were in the playing.
Another room offered a “Sound Journey” and was filled with the scent of lavender and the gentle sounds of Tibetan bowls, rainsticks, a cello, wind chimes, a harmonium, a triangle, and a whole range of instruments and sound makers. Lights were dim and electric candles were set up in front and interspersed among the instruments on a blanket. It was the perfect respite from other louder sound experiences. The two artists in the room invited children to “travel without moving, using your mind and the music you hear” and to “let your imagination take you to a different place.”
Carnegie drew a diverse group of families to its free event, mostly with children under the age of seven, although a handful of older siblings were spotted scattered around the premises. Most families that I talked to had not been to other Carnegie Hall family programming, but, of course, it’s difficult to ascertain in this post-pandemic season why that is. Many said they “had always wanted” to try out Carnegie’s programming, but it “had never been the right time.”
In addition to these free, “open house” events for families, WMI offers two programs for elementary-aged children—one concert series that introduces diverse music from around the world, in Zankel Hall (Musical Explorers), and another for students enrolled in participating schools that introduces elementary students to the orchestra and culminates with a visit to hear and participate in a concert in Stern Auditorium (LinkUp!). There is a large assortment of other programs for older students and children, ranging from three national youth ensembles to workshops focusing on the “business” of the music industry to lullaby writing for new and expecting mothers. Both the breadth and depth of WMI’s family programming are as breathtaking as the diversity and range of programming itself.
Nearby, chaos reigned in the lobby of the newly renovated David Geffen Hall—as beautiful as it is—before the first New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert of the season. The excitement of hundreds of children and families reverberated throughout the space, although it was hard to tell how much of the buzz was preconcert eagerness and how much was from the awe inspired by the new building, which is both majestic and artsy—and crammed full of children trying to get a spot at a craft table where they could make a light-up wand. While it was not immediately clear how these wands were related to the music, they were both beautiful and inevitably distracting. As it turned out, they were incorporated into the program, which presented Stravinsky’s Firebird.
The house was packed with hundreds of people, and big cheers went up for the first YPC in the new hall. Host and concert emcee Justin Hines did a fabulous job of engaging, and the performance was well scaffolded—small things were explained in manageable chunks and eventually led to the audience being able to hear and follow the story during the entire Finale.
While the information presented was often a bit technical, the dazzling musical excerpts held everyone’s attention, and the kids were rapt during demonstrations. Hines explained how Stravinsky used extremes to tell the story of the Firebird,and also how it was written for a classical ballet, but this presentation was reinterpreted using more modern dance—hip-hop, to be exact. The dancers were fantastic but played a small role until the end, when the entire Finale was performed without interruption and with dancers.
In the middle of the program, the orchestra presented a premiere of Wonder, a new work composed by a 17-year-old student in the organization’s Very Young Composers program. While the transition to the work was a bit awkward, the piece itself was captivating and relevant. It seemed a shame not to allow the composer (who was in the audience) to speak—a missed opportunity to inspire a roomful of kids by having a kid talk about a piece that he wrote and just had performed by one of the best orchestras in the nation! That aside, the audience was enthralled during the show and leapt to its feet with wild applause and a standing ovation at the end.
While nothing about the New York Philharmonic’s performance felt especially personal or deeply engaging—it was more like a show—I suppose there’s a limit to what you can do with an audience of over a thousand. Similar to the Chamber Music Society concert, the explanations sometimes seemed somewhat distant or even beyond the capabilities of many in the audience, but the musical demonstrations and performances truly held most children’s attention in both performances.
Carnegie Hall presented a different approach entirely—engaging kids on a much more personal and intimate level through multiple avenues—but did not present the same distinctly classical concert experience as the other institutions. I suppose the advantage of living in a city like New York is the plethora of options: organic peanut butter, myriad ice cream flavors, vegan cheeses, classical-music family programming offered by high-level arts institutions. Each one presented a different kind of musical experience, but each provided a way for kids to connect with great music. Can music tell a story? Yes, yes it can, even to the youngest audiences.