By Jenny Neyman
Vibrato, as a musical concept, may be a little beyond the scope of experience of most elementary school music students. For that matter, so is participating in a professional, bona fide, grown-up orchestra. But as Soldotna and Homer students prepare to do just that in the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra’s fall concert this weekend, they’re also unwittingly physically demonstrating the musical expression, vibrating with excitement as their orchestral debut draws near.
Third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students at Redoubt and Kalifornsky Beach elementary schools in Soldotna and McNeil Canyon Elementary in Homer have been practicing since the beginning of school to learn the parts they will sing and play with the orchestra and its fall concert Saturday in Kenai and Sunday in Homer, as part of a Link Up educational outreach program through New York’s Carnegie Hall.
“Instead of going to a concert and observing an orchestra, they’re actually a part of the orchestra, so it becomes a concert that they own. And because it’s done with professional musicians, then it has just an extraordinary opportunity for them to play with musicians at a level that they would never play when in third, fourth and fifth grade,” said Sue Biggs, music teacher at Redoubt and violinist with the orchestra.
“They’re usually playing ‘Hot-Crossed Buns’ but I’ve had to teach them faster and more complex pieces than I usually would by this time of the year, and they have just jumped into it with both feet,” she said.
The students’ portion of the orchestra’s concert contains kid-friendly music, to be
sure, but not the “Three Blind Mice” repertoire of a typical beginning music book. On the program is the finale of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” portions of Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the classic “Simple Gifts” Shaker tune, an arrangement of “I Bought Me a Cat” by Aaron Copeland, and a lively Latin-American tune, “Oye,” by Jim Papoulis.
In Biggs’ third-grade music class Friday, the lessons were as much about what to do when not playing as how to play: Stand still in between songs with hands clasped behind the back. Don’t touch the recorders dangling oh so tantalizingly from cords around their necks until it’s time to play. When it is time, put left hand on top, right on bottom and keep a good, straight, steady position.
As the music gets going, their impulse may be to bob and weave in their own version of a Dizzy Gillespie solo. But their heads — and Biggs — remind them that this is still serious stuff, and concentration wins over twitching-to-be squirrelly limbs.
At times it’s a visible struggle, though, with barely contained bounces and claps that want to explode into dances writing the subtext as clear as the kids could sing it: This. Is. So. Exciting.
“They are very serious about this and they understand that this is a special event and they are excited to be working with a real conductor. All of that is extremely exhilarating for them,” Biggs said. “I just see the focus. There’s a seriousness and a joy — both sides.”
And they don’t even grasp the best part yet. Biggs has been attempting to prepare them for what it will be like playing with the orchestra — showing them pictures, playing video clips and describing her own experiences as a musician. But even for the kids who have attended an orchestra performance before, nothing can quite compare to what it will be like being onstage looking out, rather than in the audience looking in.
“I think they know that they are going to be onstage with the orchestra playing as though they’re part of the orchestra. But I don’t think they’re going to get the actual concept of it until they see all the orchestra people on the stage and then they get up on the stage and they’re part of it. It’s going to blow them away,” said Tammy Vollom-Matturro, KPO conductor and artistic director. “And so, for them, the big part’s coming. I really think it’s going to be, ‘Whoa,’ when they hear the orchestra, when those kids realize that they are right there with them playing their instruments just like the orchestra’s playing their instruments, and they cut off when I cut off, just like the orchestra people do. They’re excited now but I think concert day will be pretty thrilling for them.”
Kids plus classical music equals thrilling is an equation that doesn’t pencil out quite as easily today as perhaps it once did. Music is so readily available these days, with digital music devices, computers, personalized radio web streams and the like, that it almost makes new musical experiences harder to come by, since it’s so easy to choose just what you already know you like.
“They have a lot of musical experience, with YouTube, television, iPods and such. They get a lot of music but often it isn’t that other style of music that classical is. So part of this is to help continue the legacy of classical music. We’re not only connecting them with classical music but we’re also encouraging them to enjoy it and perhaps participate in it as they get older,” Biggs said. “We definitely get into more of an individualized cocoon, ‘I have my iPod, I have my computer, this is what I listen to.’ And this is an event of 100 to 200 people sharing music together, seriously but also with such great joy.”
The concert has abundant opportunities for humor and silliness, Vollom-Matturro said, which is one of her favorite parts of the orchestra’s fall, family oriented concert. It’s also got a lot of variety, with emcee Marc Berezin and vocal performances, as well as educational components.
Enhanced education is where Link Up really shines. The Carnegie Hall program provides sheet music and support, as well as additional elements to add to the performances.
“It totally fits our mission to provide and educate, especial the young generation, about the orchestra,” Vollom-Matturro said.
A slide show will play throughout the Link Up portion of the concert, displaying words to songs, helping explain musical elements and prompting the audience for special things to listen for.
“There is always something to look at through this concert, which is very cool,” Vollom-Matturro said.
The other portion of the concert will be solely the orchestra, including Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” Vollom-Matturro said she chose that piece because it fits in with the Link Up theme of education and exploring melody.
“That is what that piece of music was written for,” she said.
The flutes represent birds, the horns are the Wolf, Peter is the strings section, and so on.
“It fits right into this program educationally because it does teach the different families of the orchestra through a story. And it’s one of these all-time standard pieces that people play at family concerts, and we haven’t done it for years and years and years. It’s good because we’ll have an audience full of kids and that’s who this piece is for — kids. But anybody can enjoy it,” she said.
That’s perhaps even more the theme of the concert — anyone can enjoy it. It’s a concert kids will like, but it’s not a kids’ concert.
“Even though it does feature some elementary students it’s not an elementary school concert,” Vollom-Matturro said. “It definitely is a concert for anybody and everybody. It’s going to be enjoyable, especially for the people who want to know a little bit more about the elements of music. The program is really written well to educate every age level.”
Learning can be for any age. So, too, is classical music, and looking forward to a concert that blends both.
“They are extremely motivated and very focused and very excited,” Biggs said of her students.
“This is something we’ve never done before, so I’m very excited about this,” Vollom-Matturro said.
The Kenai Peninsula Orchestra will perform its fall concert at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School and 2 p.m. Sunday at Mariner Theater at Homer High School. Admission will be by free-will donation at the door.