Cumberland Times-News

May 29, 2008

Arts are obviously alive in Allegany County

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the spring concert of the Allegany Community Symphony Orchestra. The program was free, and nicely varied, and the instrumentalists were competent. But I was most impressed by the dozen public school students who joined the adult musicians for part of the program. Obviously the arts are alive here in Allegany County.

For some people, interest in the arts is measured by the number of tickets sold for performances by Broadway stars or chamber orchestras from obscure Balkan countries. Money is budgeted for ballet performances and Shakespearean excerpts in our schools.

I would be more favorably impressed if money could be provided so that every second-grader had a chance to finger a pint-sized violin or pick out the notes of "Mary had a little lamb'' on a licorice-stick recorder.

I once lived in a Midwestern city where music was well-supported. Each of the two high schools had an orchestra and a marching band, a glee club and a choir, and several jazz combos.

When I went to a high school play, I looked down into the orchestra pit to see a row of double-bases. Yes, I was told, they belonged to the school, and there was a waiting list of students who wanted to begin taking lessons next year.

A few high school students may be talented enough to become professional musicians. Some will continue with music as a hobby. But most of them will have learned that live performances are shared experiences, no two of them alike: The audience responds to the actions on stage and the performers react to that response in ways that are impossible in filmed or recorded performances.

The importance of the audience in a live performance was something I became conscious of as I grew up in Philadelphia. At that time Leopold Stokowski was the conductor of the city's world-famous orchestra.

Unlike some conductors, Stokowski was known for playing the orchestra as though it were one big instrument at his command. According to his mood at the moment, he changed the tempo, he repeated passages that had never been played a second time in rehearsal, he muted the violins and gave the melody to the woodwinds. The musicians couldn't take their eyes off him.

Stokowski also responded to the mood of his audience, in particular, the group who comprised the Youth Concerts in the 1920s.

I was one of those in the 15 to 25 age group (IDs required) who adored him. Each month he provided some sort of surprise; I remember hearing Kirsten Flagstad once, and Laurence Tibbett at another time, unannounced in newspapers or the evening's printed program. At one of the early concerts he introduced Ravel's "Bolero'' as an encore, and the crowd went wild.

"Bolero'' in a recording, or used to accompany a ballet, I find boring. The same sequence of notes is repeated over and over and over again. But when played by a live orchestra, it begins with a scarcely audible whisper of sound (a brush moved across the top of a drum?). Then it is joined by a thin blue thread of melody. One instrument after another sneaks in, with each addition subtly changing the texture of the sound and adding to its volume. It builds to a crashing climax, impossible to reproduce in recorded form.

In the Academy of Music, with a student audience, "Bolero'' was wonderful, and the young people couldn't get enough of it. At the next concert, when Stokowski bowed his way out, the audience sat down, and so did the orchestra. Stokowski reappeared with the score for the planned encore, and the audience reacted politely - but refused to budge. "Bolero''! was the cry. Finally the conductor reappeared, took the podium, and "Bolero'' it was. And so it remained as long as I attended those concerts: The audience refused to go home until they had heard their favorite number.

Not all conductors, or orchestras, accept the dictates of the audience as Stokowski did, but in live performances the people in those rows of seats, interacting with the artists, make a significant contribution. The musicians have played the same notes at each rehearsal, but they come together differently when they are played to an audience.

Last week's concert was a joyful experience for me. A group of adults - some of them my friends and neighbors - provided pleasant sound; the students who joined them gave promise of more music in the future; and I felt very much a part of it, bathed in memories of the many concerts to which I have contributed as a member of the audience.

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.