World-famous conductor Gianandrea Noseda is on the podium in a high school auditorium before a couple hundred restless teenagers. It’s a tough crowd.
Noseda is in great international demand. This month, he’s shuttling between New York, where he’s conducting a run of “Adriana Lecouvreur” at the Metropolitan Opera, and Washington, where he’s music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and leading concerts with the star soprano Renée Fleming and the breathtaking pianist Daniil Trifonov. But on this day, he and the orchestra are at the Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC) on 16th Street NW, as part of the community outreach program NSO in Your Neighborhood, now in its eighth year. To judge from the students’ body language, the ambient hum and the boy who has to be removed, fighting all the way, during the overture to “Die Fledermaus,” they don’t all necessarily want to be here, listening to Mozart and Beethoven.
How do you reach people who are new to classical music and make them want to come back? One answer is to give them the very best you can and hope something sticks, and that, Noseda is doing to the utmost. Orchestras across the country are experimenting with this kind of outreach program, but you don’t always see your marquee music director leading the concerts. Noseda, however, who was introduced to NSO in Your Neighborhood when he was announced as the music director three years ago, has taken it seriously, carving out time for this school performance, and offering heartfelt spoken comments between the pieces.
“This is a signature piece from Vienna,” he says of the “Fledermaus” overture. “It’s very difficult to do. It’s always included in conducting competitions. I won my first competition with this piece when I was a little older than you. It’s how my work in art started.
“I wish you to fulfill your dreams,” he continues. “See if we can convey to you beauty — if you are able to catch it.”
These are lovely thoughts. Noseda is not talking down to this audience; he’s treating them like equals. Some of the students are clearly excited for the concert: There are hand taps; there are pantomimes of conducting; there’s a chorus of approving wolf-whistles when each piece is done.
Yet the connection isn’t quite there. Noseda himself, an Italian who lives largely in hotels, can’t be expected to gauge the context in which these kids live. He assumes they’ve seen “Mozart in the Jungle,” because he’s heard it’s a TV show; he assumes they’ve watched the Golden Globe Awards. A-plus for the effort to establish cultural relevancy, but as well-meaning and informative as his comments are, he isn’t telling these students why they should care about the roster of unfamiliar European male composers being thrown at them.
The eight pieces on the program — including two excerpts from Holst’s “The Planets,” the “Song to the Moon” from Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” and movements of Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven symphonies — test the limits of the allotted hour, and of this audience’s endurance. Then there’s that awful question of when to clap. Some kids eagerly start up whenever there’s a lull in the music. One boy gets it wrong and buries his head in his hands — only to be removed from the auditorium by one of several watchful administrators, though perhaps he said something to her in their interaction that warranted further discipline.
Connecting with people isn’t rocket science, but it’s an area in which classical music consistently struggles. One of the most famous illustrations of failed outreach was Joshua Bell’s infamous 2007 performance in the Washington Metro during the morning rush hour, during which almost no one stopped to listen to the famous violinist. In the wake of that controversial performance, one busker said something that stuck with me: Musicians who regularly play on the street, from violinists to singers to trash-can drummers, learn how to connect with passersby in such a way that this doesn’t happen. Classical musicians aren’t usually trained to establish this kind of rapport, and even a born communicator like Noseda can’t do it single-handedly.
There tends, inevitably, to be a hit-or-miss aspect to outreach events. There are a huge number of logistical challenges to overcome simply to get musicians on the stage — finding venues that can accommodate them, audiences to listen to them, musicians willing to play in a range of circumstances. Most of the NSO in Your Neighborhood events involve only a few musicians.
On Tuesday, the program’s first day, the Juniper Trio — the NSO’s assistant principal oboe, Jamie Roberts; the Washington National Opera Orchestra’s principal bassoon, Joseph Grimmer; and the pianist Jamila Tekalli — played at the Hillcrest Children and Family Center, an organization devoted to behavioral health services. The performance was in a room so small that the 30-some listeners were seated only a couple of feet from the performers, and Tekalli had to put an electric keyboard on a corner table, with an electric pedal that kept inching away from her over the carpet. Yet it was a delightful and warm performance of short, engaging pieces, from a transcription from Verdi’s “La Traviata” through a gracious Terzetto by Theodore Lalliet to a Poulenc trio, all played with immediacy and conviction, and the listeners had broad smiles on their faces. You can’t ask for more.
Orchestra programming for such events is even more difficult: It also depends on what music the orchestra can prepare and what the conductor is able to learn. I wish that the middle- and high-schoolers at CHEC could hear a piece by a living composer, such as Gabriela Lena Frank, to show some of the young women in the audience that this music is also for them. And indeed, the NSO’s next free In Your Neighborhood concert, on Saturday night at the Lincoln Theater, features a piece by Frank and plenty of other American music. It just didn’t work out to have it played at this particular concert.
Outreach risks taking on a missionary, self-satisfied glow, getting caught up in the innate value of sharing such great music with those who have not been privileged to have been exposed to it. Lurking within this well-meaning construct is the toxic view of music as a kind of largesse: the idea that this music is better than the music you already like. The school concert, with all the best intentions, to some degree demonstrated that if classical music is offered in its own bubble, without context, it has little chance of really connecting with new audiences — though, as some observed before the school show, if even one student leaves with new ideas in her head, the attempt will have been worth it.
Context is everything. Noseda and the NSO stayed in Columbia Heights to play the same concert again, in the same space, before a smaller, broader audience — from babies to senior citizens, on Thursday night. Having given so much of himself in the afternoon, this time Noseda played through the first half of the program in old-fashioned classical music style, which is to say, in silence. Yet the program made more sense in this context, in which the audience sat in receptive silence, expecting, to some degree, what it was going to get. And Noseda, too much the communicator to stay silent long, began talking again at the midpoint, and continued through to the encore, the end of Rossini’s “William Tell” overture, better known, as Noseda pointed out, as the theme to “The Lonely Ranger [sic].” Like the rest of the day, communication here, too, wasn’t exact, but people generally knew what he meant.
NSO in Your Neighborhood continues through Monday with a range of free performances including the Lincoln Theater performance Saturday night.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of one ensemble: It is the Juniper Trio, not the Jupiter Trio.