National Symphony Orchestra treks to W.Va. to serve up classical music

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010

MILL CREEK, W.VA. -- In a town that Natalie Dennis, the middle and high school music teacher here, describes as "the sticks of West Virginia," a group of teenage kids, slouching on metal folding chairs, faces two violinists from the National Symphony Orchestra. Holly Hamilton and Paula Sisson Akbar are playing to a tough crowd.

But even the wisecracking class clowns show interest as Hamilton and Akbar play Mozart, then move on to folk fiddling. Then, Dennis encourages her students to give back. So 20 or so kids, the boys in heavy work boots, their eyes fixed in embarrassment on the linoleum floor, start singing, in gravelly monotones, "Sixteen Tons" -- especially poignant against the tacit backdrop of the recent mining tragedy in this state, about a 170-mile drive to the southwest.

It's a moment of cultural exchange -- and a perfect photo op for the NSO's American Residencies. Since 1992, the orchestra has made annual pilgrimages to bring classical music to underserved states around the country. West Virginia, where the orchestra will remain through Monday, is the 20th state it has visited to offer orchestral concerts, chamber performances, and trips by individual musicians to elementary schools and universities, hospitals and nursing homes. Bringing music to America in this way is the NSO's strongest claim to its title of our country's national orchestra.

But the residencies are not as simple as the orchestra providing culture to people desperate for it. For one thing, none of the states is a completely blank slate. West Virginia has four symphony orchestras, with active outreach programs of their own. West Virginia University in Morgantown -- where the NSO spent the first four nights of the current residency -- has a respectable school of music and easy access to several orchestras, including the Pittsburgh Symphony, which is an hour away.

For another thing, it's not clear that people really are desperate for music. Some communities are tremendously excited about the NSO's visit: In Clarksburg, which hosted a chamber concert by NSO players, the mayor announced that this was the town's official "National Symphony Orchestra week" to the sold-out auditorium before the concert.

But in Morgantown, someone didn't get the memo. Though students at the university took part in master classes with NSO musicians, no one in the rest of town -- including the Chamber of Commerce -- seemed aware that the orchestra was here. People on the street said they would have been happy to go if they had known about it, but the orchestra's concert in the university's Clay Theater -- performing Bernstein's dances from "On the Town," Mozart's "Prague" Symphony and Dvorak's Eighth under the baton of Iván Fischer, prefaced by Bach's "Air on the G String" as a memorial to the people killed and injured in this week's explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine -- was attended by only a couple hundred people.

Ongoing outreach

In fact, between the photo ops, the NSO residencies are a snapshot of the state of classical music in America. Rather than breaking new ground, the orchestra is joining local cultural institutions in the ongoing missionary work that has become a centerpiece of virtually all classical music organizations in every market: trying to reach anyone they can in the attempt to light a spark.

There's plenty going on in West Virginia's cultural life. The NSO's invitation came from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, whose commissioner, Randall Reid-Smith, says that he's seen a 47 percent increase in arts funding in the state budget since he took over in 2006.

Mikylah McTeer, a violin professor at West Virginia University who came to the state three years ago, is impressed that "there are some very strong string programs in the schools here," as opposed to her native Oregon, where "nothing is happening anymore." The Charleston-based West Virginia Symphony sends a string quartet to give more than 60 concerts a year in communities across the state.

Nonetheless, the residencies ride on the idea of bringing music to people who haven't had it. That's the appeal for the NSO musicians who participate -- on a voluntary basis, for a small honorarium -- in the various outreach programs, which are of their own creation.

Glenn Donnellan, a violinist, is making eight appearances this week in West Virginia schools. "I think it's a great concept," says Yvonne Caruthers, a cellist who has been on every residency since the first trip to Alaska in 1992. "I think so much more about education than I ever used to do, and it's given me an opportunity to try out some ideas."

"It helps us remember," says Rita Shapiro, the orchestra's executive director, "why we do what we do."

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