TAFTO 2005 Contribution: Lisa Hirsch

Although she claims to be a technical writer, self described opera geek Lisa Hirsch’s writing reads like anything but dry, technical, stereo instructions.  Instead, her blog, The Iron Tongue of Midnight (I like it when people use some of the more obscure quotes from Shakespeare) is a veritable clearinghouse of fantastic ideas and discussions on a variety of culture concerns. Lisa’s TAFTO contribution is also one of the most unique and well thought out pieces yet.  I’ll add some of my own thoughts to her superb point of view; but first, enjoy her contribution. ~ Drew McManus

So, it’s Take a Friend to the Orchestra month, and you’re casting around among your friends, trying to figure out which one to invite along on your extra subscription ticket. I have a suggestion for you: take a kid to the orchestra.

You probably know some kids, right? If you have children of your own, it’s likely you’ve already taken them to the orchestra or the opera or some other live event. If you don’t, maybe friends have a kid you could borrow, or your neighbors do. Maybe you have nieces and nephews, but your siblings only listen to rock. In any event, there is a kid somewhere in your life and I’m defining “kid” to mean anyone under about 18 who has never heard live concert music.

Let’s say you’ve picked a kid to take to the orchestra. Now it’s time for a talk adjust these questions accordingly if you know the answers already or if they don’t seem age-appropriate.

Start by asking the kid if she’s ever heard a symphony orchestra, live or on record. Ask if she can identify orchestral instruments in fact, ask if she has ever had any music lessons. Can she read music? If she could play an instrument, which one would it be?

What kind of music does she hear in her house? What kind of music does she like to listen to? Hard rock? Folk? Blues? Gospel? Guitar music? Jazz? Piano? Singers? Quiet, meditative music? Loud, exciting music? Music from India, or from South America?

Then it’s time for a listening session or two. What you’re going to do here is try to calibrate what your kid likes, so that you can then choose an appropriate concert. It’s not safe to make assumptions; I know someone who became enamored of opera at age 14 after hearing the Norwegian Radio Orchestra recording of Gutterdemmerung, which has little to offer beyond Flagstad and Svanholm. I know people who love Janacek and lots of 20th century music who can’t made head or tail of Mozart. And of course, if the chosen kid has not heard much classical music, she hasn’t got preconceived notions about what is “good,” what is “difficult,” what is a “pop classic.” That’s in your favor! Whatever you pick, consider sticking with five or ten minute excerpts. You’ll know when something has hit the spot.

Here are some composers and specific pieces I’d consider running by a potential classical music fan, but you know the kid in question and I don’t, so be imaginative:

  • Something by Bach or Handel; maybe a Brandenburg concerto or the Royal Fireworks Music. There’s always Vivaldi, of course.
  • A movement of a Mozart piano concerto
  • A movement of a Haydn symphony
  • The scherzo of a Beethoven symphony, or, if the kid likes big, gorgeous tunes, the slow movement of the 5th
  • One of the Paganini caprices for violin. No, it’s not orchestral music, but these little gems define virtuosity, and you’ll know right away if you’ve got a violin fan on your hands. For that matter, make it the 24th, then put on the Rachmaninov Rhapsody. If your kid is adventurous, try Lutoslawski’s puckish variations for two pianos on the same theme.
  • A Wagner opera overture or prelude and your choice of vocal excerpt, preferably with Flagstad or Melchior or Leider or Nilsson.
  • Your choice of a symphony movement by Brahms, Dvorak, Mahler, Bruckner, or other composer of big, romantic works.
  • A movement from a nice, juicy romantic concerto. One of the Saint-Saens piano concertos or Brahms piano concertos? You kid might find the S-S more fun than the Brahms. The Mendelssohn violin concerto?
  • A chunk of any one of Richard Strauss’s tone poems
  • The Janacek Sinfonietta or Glagolitic Mass
  • Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, perhaps the opening Shrovetide Fair tableau, or maybe a scene from The Firebird
  • A couple of Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra
  • Your choice of a symphony movement by Sibelius or Nielsen or even Vaughn Williams
  • Let’s throw in Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. It’s a great piece for helping someone learn the sounds of orchestral instruments, besides being a great set of variations!
  • Messaien’s Turangalala, especially if the kid likes loud music

That’s a lot of music! You’ll have to decide how to limit your listening session so your kid stays interested. And here are a few more suggestions beyond the music you listen to:

  • Depending on the age and sophistication of the child, do bring out Fantasia for a viewing. There are worse things than seeing dancing hippos whenever you hear “The Dance of the Hours.”
  • Have some information on hand about each of the works and the composers, so you can answer questions.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask questions, starting with “did you like that?” and “what did you like about it?” or “what did you dislike?”
  • If you have the time, and if the kid is the right age, you might even go through one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, now available on DVD; there is no better advocate for classical music.
  • If the kid plays an instrument, by all means, find a concerto for that instrument!
  • If the kid reads music, and you read music, consider taking some orchestral scores out of the library. Sure, the kid may not be able to follow the score very closely, but she might find it a thrill to see what the score looks like anyway.

If you make it through the above, or your own selections, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the kid will like. Then the two of you can scout for an appropriate concert (or two). You might be able to catch a full-time professional orchestra, if you live in or near a city that has one, or one might be visiting.  A nearby college might have an orchestra or might have a visiting-orchestra series. I suspect it doesn’t matter much; while you definitely would like the best possible experience, what’s probably most important is that it’s a group that plays with passion and commitment, and has a reasonably exciting

When you go, make a day out of it! You might consider going to an outdoor free concert, where a picnic is appropriate and you can talk during the selections without annoying the conservative members of the audience. If it’s an indoor concert, maybe have dinner or lunch beforehand, especially if there is a restaurant in the concert hall. Plan on hot cocoa or ice cream afterward to talk about the concert. The questions suggested above will give you plenty to talk about.

And then pick another concert to go to together.

– Lisa Hirsch