Last Sunday I experienced the highpoint of my concert going for this season. From the programming to the performances to the audience, I felt like I was partaking in a rock concert rather than a classical chamber orchestra performance. The hall was jammed packed with an audience covering all backgrounds and ages. The energy was electric. Likewise, the attention given to the players was spellbinding, as I did not hear one cough the entire evening.
Except for the ringers in the wind section, the oldest musician was eighteen years old. I was at the finale concert of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra Association. This 40-year-old organization has been a home for countless young musicians in the Bay Area, a place where both a beginning and an advanced string student can experience the joys and travails of playing in an orchestra. That evening the advanced orchestra premiered a work of my composition student, a high school junior named Matthew Cmiel. The beginning orchestra premiered another new work by Lily Chin, Double Dragon Dance, arranged for Chinese Zithers and strings. The show was rounded out by J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins in D Major and both Mozart’s Horn Concerto No.2 and Symphony No. 29. All of these pieces were performed with the same high focus, technical prowess, and musicality. The audience responded in kind, giving thunderous (and deserved) applause and hoots to the composers and to their works.
Time again and again I have witnessed concert halls packed with avid followers for youth orchestras. Often these ensembles have better precision and musicality than many adult community orchestras, some of which have professionals in their ranks. The audiences for these groups are not just blind followers, either. They are critical listeners, more versed in music literature than the average concertgoer of the local symphony series.
PACO exhibited what I have also found to be the case: these same audiences tend to be more receptive to new music than the average symphony audience. While I have been blessed to work with incredible professional musicians, those same musicians would also say that younger players tend to be more open to trying new music and that willingness is passed along to their audience. Adults who would normally have no clue who or what a composer of concert music is today come away from these performances of new music by youngsters eager to hear and learn more about it.
So, what is it about concerts by youth that can create such an optimum listening experience for both contemporary music and the traditional repertoire? Is it because the audience is filled with their fans, friends, and family? Are not our concerts filled with our fans, friends, and family? Do we feel freer to open our minds and hearts to children performing in a way that we do not allow ourselves in “professional” engagements? Or is it the way youth perceive and experience music? Do they get something we do not and is that translated into their performances? What is it that fosters passionate supporters of the musical endeavors of youth? Is it a quality limited to the way we adore our offspring? And, if so, can we create that same spirit without having our own parents in tow?