March 30, 2016

Guest Essay: Music is an essential part of education

I attended a morning concert by the Rochester Philharmonic on March 11 in Kodak Hall. The orchestra performed symphonic music by such master composers as Dvořák, Mendelssohn, Barber, Mussorgsky, Mahler and Elgar to a packed full house. However, the thousands of people in the audience were not of the gray-haired set, like me. The audience consisted entirely of grade school students from the Rochester nine-county region. Just as many thousands of elementary school students in our community have done regularly since the early 1960s, they came to Eastman Theatre to attend an RPO Intermediate Concert, part of the series of educational programs performed by one of America’s finest orchestras.
2016 Intermediate Concerts
c. Michelle Shippers

As the Eastman Theatre seats gradually filled prior to the concert, the children viewed texts and drawings by fellow students on the subjects of love, sadness and joy-all projected onto a large screen behind the orchestra. The projections set the mood for the concert, aptly titled, “Cheers, Tears and Fears! Music Expressing Emotions.”

As the concert began, a truly amazing thing happened. The thousands of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders became absolutely silent as the first composer’s name and title of the music were projected onto the large video screen. From the orchestra’s very first sound, until the final note played in an excerpt from Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 8” an hour later, the audience was fully engaged in the music and wonderfully friendly narration by the orchestra's conductor, Michael Butterman.

I was seated in the very last row of the balcony, where I could easily observe the reactions of the students in the audience, and I can report with certainty that they were deeply engaged and on the edges of their seats from start to finish, especially including those in the row immediately in front of me, who were the farthest removed from the stage. As an example, during the entire performance of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” one of the most intensely slow, quiet and emotionally charged works in all of classical music, it would have been possible to hear a pin drop. And, even more remarkable were the responses to Butterman’s questions by students who were solicited from the audience. The youngsters clearly understood and appreciated the music, which should put to rest any notion that classical music isn’t for kids.

This was everything that an education concert by a symphony should be:
  •  A program centered on some of the world’s most inspiring classical music.
  •  A focused and well-thought-out narrative, centered on universal subjects.
  • An interactive experience, which enabled individual students to participate by offering their thoughtful responses to Butterman's provocative questions.
This is an essential part, not a frivolous extra, to the education of our children. The supporters of the RPO should be proud of this service and continue to do whatever is necessary to raise the community’s awareness and appreciation of the RPO’s education mission. Congratulations to Butterman and to all who helped to present this concert. How fortunate we are to have such an enriching resource for children of all ages in Rochester.

William Cahn
Bill Cahn is a former member of the RPO (principal percussion), honorary RPO Board Member, founding member of Nexus Percussion, and co-founder of Percussion Rochester. 


This essay was originally published in Messenger Post Newspapers.

March 1, 2016

Music to convey emotions: Q and A with soprano Erin Wall

Erin Wall
credit Kristin Hoebermann
One of music's greatest gifts is its ability to convey emotions in a way that words cannot. This month at the RPO, the classical and contemporary will intertwine to weave tales of the human condition.

On the classical side, Canadian soprano Erin Wall joins the orchestra for Strauss' Four Last Songs. Strauss died before he had the chance to hear the works performed, so it seems fitting that his last work was on the subject of accepting the end of this life and the passing into another.

Paired with Strauss' Four Last Songs are works by Barber, Vaughan Williams, and a piece by contemporary composer Patrick Harlin. Harlin's Rapture seeks to musically convey the experiences faced by the world's deepest cavers. Harlin said the piece "is a blueprint for a universal human experience: the onset of extreme emotion."

We caught up with soprano Erin Wall to learn more about her connection to Strauss' Four Last Songs and her excitement for her RPO debut!

What is special/unique about Strauss’ Four Last Songs for you?

For a lyric soprano these pieces are the holy grail of the concert repertoire! I first heard them in college and fell instantly in love, but I didn't actually perform them with orchestra until a decade later. They're incredibly challenging but absolutely some of the most gratifying music I have ever sung. So many of the greats have sung and recorded them, and taking them on for the first (and second and third) time was very daunting, intimidating. Now I feel very at home with the songs and have my own take on how I like to perform them, but I never feel as if I've reached anything definitive, so I look forward to performing them as many times as possible in the future.

Since the songs are in German, what can you tell us about the story conveyed in the music?
Also, even though you aren’t acting here, how do you bring your opera training into a performance like this?

There are four songs, four poems, and primarily they deal with death, not a fearsome terrifying death, but a calm acceptance of it, even somewhat ecstatic experience, at least in the case of the third song, Beim Schlafengehen, which literally translates as "on going to sleep". The first song, Frühling (Spring) is an analogy for love. Im Abendrot, the final song, is incredibly powerful. The imagery is of a couple, essentially walking off into the sunset together at the very end of their lives. I find myself dangerously close to tears when singing it a lot of the time. The only difference in interpreting a set of songs (as opposed to an operatic role) is that I'm essentially playing myself, but as long as I have a connection to the music and the text, I don't really find my approach very different. It was suggested to me by a reporter recently that I might not have a lot to say in repertoire dealing with death given my relatively "young age". I honestly don't know how anyone reaches middle age without having death touch their lives and the lives of their loved ones, so to me, it's not a foreign subject at all.

Favorite role you have played

I just finished a very emotional run of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, and I absolutely adore singing the Countess in that opera. Other than that, definitely the Strauss heroines I've sung: Daphne, Arabella, and the Countess in Capriccio.

Is this the first time you will go to Rochester? What else are you looking forward to visiting while in town?

This will be my first time in Rochester, so I hope to see as much as possible. My husband is coming down on the weekend with our children, so the Museum of Play is definitely on the agenda. I'm also excited to visit with friends who teach at Eastman!

If you go
Stare Conducts Strauss Four Last Songs
Thu. Mar. 17 at 7:30 PM
Sat. Mar. 19 at 8 PM
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre
Tickets start at $22

Preview Patrick Harlin's Rapture on Spotify


Hear Erin Wall sing Im Abendrot from Strauss' Four Last Songs with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.