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

Yet this aspect of the residencies is also ephemeral: a single visit to a school may not be enough to create lasting interest. "You can't do it by inoculation," says Grant Cooper, the artistic director and conductor of the West Virginia Symphony, stating the reasons he increased his orchestra's youth concerts when he took over nearly 10 years ago. He adds, "To me, it's the sustaining of the effort that actually shows the results." Therefore, "we need to try to follow up" on the NSO's visit.

For West Virginians, beyond the honor of hosting a national organization, one hope is that the NSO's visit stimulates thinking about the arts. "Sometimes it takes having an outside arts group come in to make the community recognize what they have," says Lourdes Karas, the executive director of the Appalachian Education Initiative, which promotes arts education in schools. Karas is serving as the NSO's local coordinator during the residency; this has enabled her to make new contacts. "You hope it serves as a springboard for more collaboration," she said.

High cost for the NSO

This vague hope of benefit comes at a considerable price. The annual NSO residencies are funded, to the tune of about half a million dollars, by the Kennedy Center through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, with additional help from the center's Fortas Memorial Fund for Chamber Music. The current trip also received support from the now-notorious Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine.

Funding is never a sure thing, and one reason West Virginia was attractive was that the orchestra didn't have to spend money on plane tickets. The NSO doesn't make anything on the tour; part of its gift is allowing the presenting organizations to keep the ticket revenue.

The orchestra completes the exchange by bringing West Virginia to Washington; a piece by a local composer will be played at the Kennedy Center, two students will travel to D.C. for the Summer Music Institute and one teacher will come to Washington to work with NSO musicians on a curriculum of his own devising.

Still, the residencies remain largely a random act of kindness. The West Virginia trip might have been more effective had the orchestra been able to connect with some of the outreach programs already in existence. Or if the local promotion had been organized well enough to let more people in Morgantown know that the orchestra was coming.

The experience offers touching moments, and it often invigorates the players. Caruthers remembers a woman in Tennessee coming up after what seemed to her to be a routine talk and placing a necklace around her neck as thanks for living the life the woman had always dreamed of.

Moreover, there is anecdotal evidence from past residencies that, beyond the fond memories of people who heard the orchestra, the NSO's visit can inspire people to new action. In South Dakota, the symphony reported an uptick in ticket sales after the orchestra's 2002 visit. In Arkansas, which the orchestra visited last year, Rollin Potter, the dean of the School of Fine Arts and Communications at the University of Central Arkansas, reports a similar phenomenon. Furthermore, the visit moved him to take some new steps. He recently became a member of the governing board of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and he is talking about bringing some players down to Arkansas for chamber performances.

"I think it did step up my interest in how I could be involved with a front-line orchestra," Potter says. "It sparks enthusiasm and new ideas to have an orchestra like the NSO."

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