From the Mouths of Babes (and the Mouthpieces of Their Recorders)

Carnegie Hall Link Up: The Orchestra Moves
Orpheum Theatre, Sioux City
Monday, March 9, 2020

Even if you’re quiet, you may not be able to hear it.  I don’t mean the sound of the freezing March rain on your window or the distant rumble of a legion of idling buses on Pierce Street.  I don’t mean the sound of claves keeping rhythm or recorders tuning to their A.  No.  Inside the Orpheum Theatre this morning, and for another day-and-a-half, tiny seeds of interest and potential are silently germinating in the hearts and brains of youth across the Siouxland area. 

The Sioux City Symphony Orchestra and many, many area schools have teamed up with Carnegie Hall’s Link Up program to bring live orchestral music to thousands of students.  Those thousands of students aren’t nationwide.  They’re right here in Siouxland.  Eighteen hundred elementary school students packed the Orpheum Theatre just this morning to listen to and participate in live orchestral music.  And for many of them, it was their first time being in the Orpheum or seeing an orchestra. 

Each year, the symphony and the schools get to decide on which curriculum they want to use.  This year, the theme was The Orchestra Moves, and the Link Up program in the Orpheum included dance music from Austria (the waltz), Mexico (the danzón), and Brazil (the samba).  The obvious idea is to get kids engaged and moving, but this program seems less about getting the body moving than starting a movement.  And like all good movements, this one has the potential to move from the ground up. 

Just two days ago I sat in the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.  On one side of me sat a couple of strangers who had never been there before.  But they told me their kids had been to the Guthrie—several times—for school trips, and these kids had been pestering their parents, asking them over and over when they were going to go themselves.  So there they were, taking in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

I bet there are hundreds of families who have a similar experience regarding orchestral music.  The parents may have never been in the Orpheum or heard a live orchestra, but there their kids are, at ten o’clock on an unpleasant late-winter morning, listening to some of the finest work in the canon. 

We, as adults, tend to think that we are the ones who have to convince the next generation to patronize and participate in the arts.  But from everything I’ve seen as a parent and as someone who was lucky enough to see the Link Up program, all our kids are game.  In fact, it’s the adults that need the convincing. 

Symphony Orchestras across the nation are working hard to attract adult audiences.  This includes our very own, very good Sioux City Symphony Orchestra.  They perform film scores and back rock bands.  But these kids didn’t need any of that.  The Link Up program doesn’t take it easy on them, nor does it seem to need to.  The program included a piece written for the kids and their recorders, but the morning opened with music from Mozart’s opera Marriage to Figaro.  Then it moved on to Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” (for recorder accompaniment), Marquez’s “Danzón No. 2,” Offenbach’s “Barcarolle”—you may better recognize parts of his Orpheus in the Underworld—and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

By the time we got to “Toreador” (“Bullfighter”), from Bizet’s opera Carmen, it became clear just how impactful the music and the live experience was.  USD’s Dr. Nicholas Provenzale first performed “Toreador” for the students wearing a cape (only slightly gimmicky) and singing with some, but not all, English translations (totally justifiable).  Then after the orchestra ran through a few iterations where the music was arranged in scared, excited, regretful, and bored moods, Provenzale performed the piece in its original French.  No translations.  No holding back.  And the kids were into it.  There were no rogue tweets on the recorders, no goofing off, no more sudden bathroom breaks than any other time before. 

I’m a parent myself, and as a parent there are plenty of landmarks and thresholds we have to negotiate along the way.  When do we let them stay over at a friend’s house?  When will we have this or that uncomfortable conversation?  What kind of television will they watch?  And for how long?  But the longer I’m a parent the more I learn I don’t need to shield my kids from things like Shakespeare or classical music.  These things are not nearly as intimidating as we, the “wise” and wizened adults, make them out to be.  Okay, maybe our kids aren’t impressed by the jingle-fied version of Beethoven’s Fifth that they hear in the background of some hammy TV commercial.  Who can blame them?  That experience is nothing like sitting in a concert hall hearing and feeling real people perform the music for hundreds of other real people

But now there’s a generation of young people in this area getting that live concert experience from a top-notch orchestra.  Let’s give due credit to that orchestra, its community, its educators, and Carnegie Hall for making such a program possible.  But let’s also give credit to our children who know enough to trust their own tastes and instincts.  And let’s please stop trying to “protect” these kids from arts that could crack them open in the very best of ways.

So maybe the best thing we can do as adults is set aside our ages and our egos and let the kids show us the way.  And if they ask when we’re finally going to get to the Orpheum or the Guthrie, let’s try to make it as soon as possible.  Because before you know it, they may have outgrown their wisdom. 

Brendan Todt is a stay-at-home father whose interest in the performing arts has followed roughly the same trajectory as his four- and five-year-olds’.