TAFTO Contribution – Lisa Hirsch

Although she claims to be a technical writer, self described opera geek Lisa Hirsch’s writing reads like anything but dry, technical, stereo instructions.  Instead, her blog, The Iron Tongue of Midnight (I like it when people use some of the more obscure quotes from Shakespeare) is a veritable clearinghouse of fantastic ideas and discussions on a variety of culture concerns.

Lisa’s TAFTO contribution is also one of the most unique and well thought out pieces yet.  I’ll add some of my own thoughts to her superb point of view; but first, enjoy her contribution.


So, it’s Take a Friend to the Orchestra month, and you’re
casting around among your friends, trying to figure out which one to
invite along on your extra subscription ticket. I have a suggestion for
you: take a kid to the orchestra.

You probably know some kids, right? If you have children of your
own, it’s likely you’ve already taken them to the orchestra or the
opera or some other live event. If you don’t, maybe friends have a kid
you could borrow, or your neighbors do. Maybe you have nieces and
nephews, but your siblings only listen to rock. In any event, there is
a kid somewhere in your life and I’m defining "kid" to mean anyone
under about 18 who has never heard live concert music.

Let’s say you’ve picked a kid to take to the orchestra. Now it’s
time for a talk adjust these questions accordingly if you know the
answers already or if they don’t seem age-appropriate.

Start by asking the kid if she’s ever heard a symphony orchestra,
live or on record. Ask if she can identify orchestral instruments in
fact, ask if she has ever had any music lessons. Can she read music? If
she could play an instrument, which one would it be?

What kind of music does she hear in her house? What kind of music
does she like to listen to? Hard rock? Folk? Blues? Gospel? Guitar
music? Jazz? Piano? Singers? Quiet, meditative music? Loud, exciting
music? Music from India, or from South America?

Then it’s time for a listening session or two. What you’re going to
do here is try to calibrate what your kid likes, so that you can then
choose an appropriate concert. It’s not safe to make assumptions; I
know someone who became enamored of opera at age 14 after hearing the
Norwegian Radio Orchestra recording of G�tterd�mmerung, which
has little to offer beyond Flagstad and Svanholm. I know people who
love Jan��ek and lots of 20th century music who can’t made head or tail
of Mozart. And of course, if the chosen kid has not heard much
classical music, she hasn’t got preconceived notions about what is
"good," what is "difficult," what is a "pop classic." That’s in your
favor! Whatever you pick, consider sticking with five or ten minute
excerpts. You’ll know when something has hit the spot.

Here are some composers and specific pieces I’d consider running by a potential classical music fan, but you know the kid in question and I don’t, so be imaginative:

  • Something by Bach or Handel; maybe a Brandenburg concerto or the Royal Fireworks Music. There’s always Vivaldi, of course.
  • A movement of a Mozart piano concerto
  • A movement of a Haydn symphony
  • The scherzo of a Beethoven symphony, or, if the kid likes big, gorgeous tunes, the slow movement of the 5th
  • One of the Paganini caprices for violin. No, it’s not orchestral
    music, but these little gems define virtuosity, and you’ll know right
    away if you’ve got a violin fan on your hands. For that matter, make it
    the 24th, then put on the Rachmaninov Rhapsody. If your kid is adventurous, try Lutoslawski’s puckish variations for two pianos on the same theme.
  • A Wagner opera overture or prelude and your choice of vocal excerpt, preferably with Flagstad or Melchior or Leider or Nilsson.
  • Your choice of a symphony movement by Brahms, Dvor�k, Mahler, Bruckner, or other composer of big, romantic works.
  • A movement from a nice, juicy romantic concerto. One of the
    Saint-Saens piano concertos or Brahms piano concertos? You kid might
    find the S-S more fun than the Brahms. The Mendelssohn violin concerto?
  • A chunk of any one of Richard Strauss’s tone poems
  • The Jan��ek Sinfonietta or Glagolitic Mass
  • Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, perhaps the opening Shrovetide Fair tableau, or maybe a scene from The Firebird
  • A couple of Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra
  • Your choice of a symphony movement by Sibelius or Nielsen or even Vaughn Williams
  • Let’s throw in Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. It’s a great piece for helping someone learn the sounds of orchestral instruments, besides being a great set of variations!
  • Messaien’s Turangal�la, especially if the kid likes loud music

That’s a lot of music! You’ll have to decide how to limit your
listening session so your kid stays interested. And here are a few more
suggestions beyond the music you listen to:

  • Depending on the age and sophistication of the child, do bring out Fantasia for a viewing. There are worse things than seeing dancing hippos whenever you hear "The Dance of the Hours."
  • Have some information on hand about each of the works and the composers, so you can answer questions.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask questions, starting with "did you like that?" and "what did you like about it?" or "what did you dislike?"
  • If you have the time, and if the kid is the right age, you might
    even go through one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, now
    available on DVD; there is no better advocate for classical music.
  • If the kid plays an instrument, by all means, find a concerto for that instrument!
  • If the kid reads music, and you read music, consider taking some
    orchestral scores out of the library. Sure, the kid may not be able to
    follow the score very closely, but she might find it a thrill to see
    what the score looks like anyway.

If you make it through the above, or your own selections, you’ll
have a pretty good idea of what the kid will like. Then the two of you
can scout for an appropriate concert (or two). You might be able to
catch a full-time professional orchestra, if you live in or near a city
that has one, or one might be visiting.  A nearby college might have an
orchestra or might have a visiting-orchestra series. I suspect it
doesn’t matter much; while you definitely would like the best possible
experience, what’s probably most important is that it’s a group that
plays with passion and commitment, and has a reasonably exciting

When you go, make a day out of it! You might consider going to an
outdoor free concert, where a picnic is appropriate and you can talk
during the selections without annoying the conservative members of the
audience. If it’s an indoor concert, maybe have dinner or lunch
beforehand, especially if there is a restaurant in the concert hall.
Plan on hot cocoa or ice cream afterward to talk about the concert. The
questions suggested above will give you plenty to talk about.

And then pick another concert to go to together.

– Lisa Hirsch

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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