Mozart's Jupiter - a Schools presentation

The Vallejo Symphony finished our season with every concert of the year sold out! This trend looks likely to continue, as our season launch for next year has already created high expectations and excitement within the community. 

I believe these gratifying results speak to our carefully considered programming, and our absolute belief in the power of music to reach out and enrich a community.

But for me, the most moving concerts that we performed for the community were the two programmes we presented to students the day after our final subscription concert.

But first, some background. Last season, the brilliant (and sadly former board member) Jim Sotiros  invited me to speak at a number of Rotary clubs throughout the region. I decided to use the opportunity to speak to the upcoming concert that we were about to present, using powerpoint as a visual aid. Think of it as an extended pre-concert talk. We also decided (as an experiment) to offer the Rotary presentation to a couple music classes in Vallejo, offering the students that attended free tickets (and cookies!) to the concert.

This got me thinking that (with a little bit of tweaking) I could fashion a similar, but purpose-built presentation to schools, focusing on works that might tie in with the curriculum, adding increased educational context around the works. After pitching this idea to a number of schools in Vallejo and Benicia, we decided to make a presentation around the Eroica. The presentation tied the story of the work to the very real inspiration that Beethoven derived from the ideals of the Enlightenment. Working in philosophy, the American and French Revolutions, and relating these monumental ideals and events to the issues of today made this more than just a music presentation. Please go to the media page of this website to see and hear that presentation in a video.

While these numerous presentations were highly successful, the one aspect that was missing was live music. So this season, when Jorge Ruvalcaba, the head of music at Vallejo’s Franklin Middle School (and occasional bassoonist for the Vallejo Symphony) contacted me with the idea of collaborations with the surrounding schools systems, I was immediately excited.

We quickly worked out that presenting a similar concept to the Eroica lectures, but with live music would be ideal. My view on the matter of music education is that the works presented should be of the utmost quality. I quickly suggested that we present schools concerts at the Empress Theatre, and base these concerts around Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, which we were to perform the day before. Like the Eroica symphony, the Jupiter is sui generis – it stands apart as a pinnacle of our art form. 

Like my Eroica presentations, I used powerpoint to help demonstrate various points throughout. I put the work into the context of world and local history, and in terms of Mozart’s specific circumstances. During musical demonstrations, I also spoke about how Mozart constructed the work, using an image of cookies to explain sonata form, among others! (note – it’s still a complex discussion, even using oreos and Belgian biscuits!)

These two completely full concerts attracted students from Solano and Napa county schools systems, with the ages ranging from elementary through to high school. 

Any conductor I have ever met has spoken in glowing terms about the inspirational example of Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts. Watching these presentations now, it strikes me how Bernstein never spoke down to his audience. His approach was highly literate, and presupposed that students are by nature, eager to learn. While I have nothing against a basic, “this is a violin, hear the harp, watch the cymbals” kind of approach, for me the idea of getting into complex topics that send the message that great art is great because it does require profound thinking, is by far the more satisfying approach. Focusing on how art was inspired by, and also directly impacted vital intellectual ideas and historical events, also make for a far richer experience, in my view.

The concerts finished with a complete performance of the Symphony. Without so much as a rehearsal, we were able to fit in two 50 minute presentations during the normal 2.5 hour performance call, and (miracle of miracles) the buses ran on time, and the magnificent ushers of the Empress Theatre were able to move hundreds of students without a hiccup. Also, the powerpoint images (ably run by our board president, Mary Eichbauer) never froze once, and most importantly, the orchestra played magnificently, playing the performances and the (carefully printed out)  excerpts seamlessly.

Not only were the students happy to hear live music (getting out of school may have had something to do with this, of course!) in a hall (read, community resource), by their professional orchestra (read, another community resource), but the larger public at large were absolutely delighted by the results. 

I see these kind of productions as adding to the quality of life that exists in these beautiful communities. Concerts such as this absolutely add to, and are in alignment with the educational offerings of the various school systems. 

I always keep in the forefront of my mind that at any given performance, there will be people hearing a work for the first time: it’s quite a responsibility! Presenting this monumental work to young people for the first time, in a hall most of them had probably never set foot in, was for me, extraordinarily moving. 

My thanks to the board of the orchestra, the Empress Theatre, and Jorge for their support, work and belief in these concerts!