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

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010; C01

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."

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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