CSO’s Beyond the Score® is Peter and the Wolf for grown-ups

Posted on January 28, 2011


How many of you remember this from your childhood? If you’ve never seen this before, I suggest you give it a watch/listen:

(Clink this link to watch the second part if you’re still feeling curious or nostalgic)

Last Friday, only a few minutes into my first Beyond the Score® concert, I quickly began to see why the classical community has been so excited for the past few years about the potential of these shows to bring people with little to no interest in classical music into a place where they could feel a connection to it. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Beyond the Score® series gives the audience reasons to listen; reasons that they would never have known if they just showed up knowing nothing about the piece. Before seeing one, I had feared that these productions would be nothing more than a way for the classical community to feel like they were reaching out when in fact they were just patting themselves on the back, but my fears could not have been more wrong.

Unlike most pre-concert lectures that I’ve been to, Beyond the Score moves the conversation about the music away from technical musical jargon and flowery (a.k.a. annoying) Programnote-ese and into a place that’s much more familiar to the general public. Just like Disney’s movie featuring Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf did when we were kids, these concert productions use narrators, multimedia, and live musical excerpts played by the orchestra in real time before you hear the whole piece to tell the story. The one I went to- Dvorak’s New World Symphony- also had a ton of really interesting quotes from Dvorak himself that were not just about the music but about his travels and experiences in America as a foreigner. These productions do an outstanding job of  appealing to people’s sense of expression, of inspiration, and perhaps most importantly, of story. And in my opinion, if we are to convince more people of why classical music is special, this is the type of talk that all of us Repertoire Lovers need to get better at.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I’ve been trying to practice what I preached earlier in the year here on this blog about being willing to support musical artists of any kind, so I’ve been trying to learn more about the local hip-hop scene. Thankfully I’ve met some nice people already, but even better than that, I’ve met someone who has not only been nice to me but invites me to hip-hop events, explains things to me when I don’t understand them and forgives my ignorance of the whole culture of hip-hop on a routine basis. In classical music, we don’t always deal well with ignorance. Ignorance too often stirs the worst parts of the Musical Pharisee in us, making too many of us angry and not enough of us empathetic. How quickly we forget that we too at one time knew nothing of this type of music, its traditions or its hidden rules, and that there is PLENTY that we are just as ignorant about.

As popular music moves further and further away from forms and melodic sensibilities that classical music enthusiasts cherish so much (not that there’s anything wrong with that…), classical music and its fans have to respect the fact that for most people, sitting through a performance of a “major work” of so-called classical music is pretty much like sitting through someone babbling at you in a foreign language for an hour or more. Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine someone sitting next to you and babbling in your ear for an hour straight in a language you can’t understand, and you’re supposed to sit there and be polite about it. The experience can be boring and/or frustrating, and if you’re someone who takes pride in having a certain level of intelligence, it can even make you feel stupid (and no one likes feeling stupid). Ironically, some people (particularly in music education circles) like to tout “music as a foreign language” as one of its virtues in hopes of apologizing for music and gaining respect for it in academic circles, but they don’t think about the ramifications of what they’re saying. What those people are saying is that unless you’re taught to comprehend this western art music language, even as a listener, there’s a 98.6% chance you won’t understand it. And if this is true, we shouldn’t wonder why there aren’t butts in the seats.

Just like my new friend in the hip-hop world, Beyond the Score teaches without talking down to its audience. It takes the audience by the hand and accepts people where they are (musicians, take notes), allowing little musical clips to work their way into our ears so that when the whole piece is put back together, we have things that we not only recognize but understand what they mean, preventing us from having to feel like the Double Rainbow Guy when we see or hear something that we think might be special, but we don’t know what it means.

I don’t think that Beyond the Score® will work for everyone, but I do believe that this series provides willing listeners with a greater understanding of the expression, inspiration and story behind a single piece of classical music, and I have hope that many of those listeners will, after experiencing the music this way, choose to head down the road of falling in love with classical music the way that most of us Repertoire honks did and still do: one piece at a time.

“If Beyond the Score can achieve anything, I hope it makes the people that come feel like these pieces belong to them.”

-Gerard McBurney, creative director, Beyond the Score®

Music I DARE you to listen to

If you live in Philadelphia, Seattle, or Chicago (obviously), you have a chance to see one of these productions put on by your local symphony orchestras later this year (click here for dates). But if you don’t live in one of those places, you can stream any of the Beyond the Score productions online for free at www.beyondthescore.org

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it when you have some spare time: check one of those videos out that are on the Beyond the Score website. It’s sort of like being at one of those newer museum exhibits that use lots of multimedia, except it’s about music instead of art or history. Withhold judgment until the whole thing is over (most are 60 minutes), and see if you don’t learn some things that don’t pique your interest about this music. I know I did, and I already loved it. Enjoy.

Until next week, you stay classy Planet Earth, and I’m going to try my best to take my own advice.

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Posted in: Music