What does “community outreach” look like in contemporary culture? This question has been asked with increasing frequency in recent years, in both theoretical and practical contexts. Which means of concert presentation will best communicate the mission of classical performance to novice audiences? How do we demystify genres such as chamber music and opera without seeming as though we are offending our listeners’ collective intelligence? Most significantly-is “community outreach” even the most appropriate term to describe our efforts, given its implication that we are engaging in an attempt to pull prospective audiences into our clandestine cultural bubble, when in actuality, it should be us who are coming to them? Perhaps, then, it is not “community outreach” that should describe such activities, but “community enhancement”-positively and impactfully enriching a particular sphere of culture with the event of classical performance.
On New Year’s Eve, I had the opportunity to take part in such an “enhancement.” For the entire week after Christmas, I enjoyed a marvelous vacation with my family at the Afterglow Lake Resort in rural northern Wisconsin. It is a truly gorgeous part of the country up there: the air is pure and rejuvenating, the snow fresh and soft, and the sky resplendent with brilliant shades of blue. It is the type of place where you can’t help but think to yourself that, whatever turmoil might be happening elsewhere in the world, here, at least, all is well. For many years, my family has vacationed in this area with two of my Dad’s colleagues from the Lyric Opera of Chicago orchestra: Lewis, the assistant principal bassoonist, and his wife, Melissa, a violist. Lewis and Melissa have two college-age girls of their own, so with them and my two younger brothers also in attendance, there have always been enough younger folk around to warrant the designation of a “kids’ table” (a tradition which we still uphold with enthusiasm, despite the fact that most of us are now legal adults). Since we’re all musicians (including us “kids”), many a wintry evening has found us joyfully making music together in the cabin, sightreading everything from classical duets to the “Auld Lang Syne”.
This music-making has not always been confined to our private lodgings, however. Before we started staying at Afterglow, we used to bunk up at another resort nearby which contained, among other amenities, a pool and racquetball court. I can’t quite recall when, but sometime during the first years of our joint family vacations, my Dad and Lewis had the idea of putting on a concert in the racquetball court on New Year’s Eve (this was not the only unorthodox venue in which the two of them have conspired to stage a performance-for many years, they spent intermissions at the Lyric reading duets in one of the large elevators backstage). At first, these impromptu performances were really just reading sessions, but as the years progressed, and us kids got older (and more proficient on our instruments), the event turned into an outright variety show. Lewis and my Dad are also amateur jugglers, and have a particularly hilarious act they do in which my Dad performs “The Swan” from “Carnival of the Animals” using a juggling ball instead of his fingers. At the end of each phrase, he tosses the ball back to Lewis, who promptly throws him another one (check out a YouTube video of it here!). Dad can get a surprisingly decent sound out of the ball, and the performance continues in this most unorthodox manner until Lewis exchanges his juggling balls for knives, and Dad flees the stage in mock terror.
It’s not all fun and games, though; more serious performances have occurred as well. One year, after a recent run at the Lyric of John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic,” we performed an arrangement of the famed “Oppenheimer’s Aria” with my Dad as the vocal soloist and Lewis and I playing a (very reduced) orchestral accompaniment (quite unfortunately, the video of this monumental event has been lost to time). We’ve even had fiddle music (courtesy of Melissa, who has a considerable folk music background) and dancing. Of course, there were some drawbacks to presenting a concert in a resort racquetball court. For one thing, it was difficult to get a decent audience (often times the patrons comprised solely of our two families and whoever happened to be in the whirlpool when we trudged by with our instruments). And for another, it never smelled very good in there (particularly if there had been a game going on directly preceding our performance).
In any case, the New Year’s Eve performances went on hiatus for a few years as our two families ended up traveling elsewhere over the vacation for various reasons, but now, at the end of 2014, we found ourselves together once more and decided the time was ripe for a revival. Lewis proposed the idea to the resort owners, a husband and wife team who know nothing but kindness and generosity, and they were all for it, so we set to work compiling our program. For the three nights before New Year’s, we held informal rehearsals and planning sessions; Lewis managed to print out some parts from IMSLP at the town library; and the resort owners provided us with some excellent PR, giving word of our impending performance to every skier who walked in the door. Finally, the evening of December 31st arrived. The night sky was crystal clear as we walked across the icy parking lot with our instruments; a myriad of stars sparkled radiantly against a backdrop of royal blue, and a full moon shone majestically overhead, bathing the snow-capped trees around us in a milky glow. The resort owners had cleared a space in front of the fireplace for us in the warming room of the main lodge, and brought in extra chairs to accommodate the audience members, who were growing in number with each passing minute. By the designated start time of 9 PM, the place was packed. Lewis, Dad and I, who were already in place “onstage” for our first selection, looked at each other excitedly. Clearly, our racquetball days were behind us.
After a brief introduction by Gail, one of the resort managers, we stood up and introduced ourselves to the audience, and proceeded to dive right into the music. Dad, Lewis and I did a two-cello + bassoon arrangement of a Mozart trio originally written for three Bassett horns; my violinist brother gave a beautiful performance of the Gounod “Ave Maria”; Dad and Lewis did a couple of their favorite duos; and my Mom joined me and Lewis to accompany Dad on the famous cello solo from Tosca. “The Swan” act was presented, to much laughter (instead of knives, Lewis came out juggling snowballs at the end), and we rounded the whole thing off with our own arrangement of Bolero, which involved, among other innovations, Dad performing the famous percussion ostinato on an empty cookie tin. The audience proved to be quite receptive; they listened with rapt attention as Lewis explained the various parts of his bassoon during a set change, and displayed similar interest when Dad told the story of Tosca prior to his performance of the solo. At the end of Bolero, they leapt to their feet in a burst of fevered applause, and spent a great deal of time speaking with us afterwards. It was great to get to know some of the guests, whom I had only previously interacted with in passing. There was a large family that was there for an annual reunion; a few families, like ours, up for a vacation week; and even some folks from our neck of the woods, in Chicago, who promised to attend a Lyric Opera performance as soon as they could. They had all found the program to be absolutely delightful, and thanked us profusely for organizing it. The general sentiment was perhaps best summed up by Gail when she remarked, “And to think, last New Year’s Eve all we did was decorate Christmas cookies….”
Later that night, as the new year inched closer to our secluded corner of the world, I reflected on the success of our endeavor. I have of course played many outreach concerts before, but even on those occasions, there still remained some element of formality, stemming from the fundamental concept that we musicians were coming to a community instead of coming from it. On New Year’s Eve, our small group of musicians came from the community-literally. We were vacationers just like our audience, up onstage in jeans still damp from a late afternoon ski around the lake, essentially saying “Hey, here’s something we can do that you might like-check it out!” The result was a truly organic appreciation of some of the greatest classical composers-Mozart, Puccini, Ravel-further magnified by the richness of the nature that surrounded our solitary makeshift venue. This was not simply community outreach. This was community enhancement.