Classical Commentary: Breaths of Fresh Air — Discovery Ensemble’s Educational Outreach Programs

Discovery Ensemble is already the local ensemble to watch for their brilliant programming and energized performances. Now add to that their commitment to educational outreach and Boston’s underserved communities.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Courtney Lewis conducting in front of students. Photo: Tony Rinaldo

It’s not uncommon for a world-class orchestra to take a program or two on the road, play for enthusiastic audiences, and return home refreshed and energized for the next concert series. That’s basically what took place Tuesday afternoon for the Discovery Ensemble, the five-year-old group that, with the Jamaica Plain-based ensemble A Far Cry, is one of the most exciting orchestras of its kind in the country.

But Tuesday’s performance was special: it didn’t involve a trek across oceans or countries; rather, all it took was a bus ride over the Charles and Mystic Rivers. The destination was Chelsea, MA, and the ensemble’s audience fit the demographic that just about every orchestra envies: it was overwhelmingly young. Indeed, Tuesday’s program, which featured only one work (Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville), was part of what might well be described as Discovery Ensemble’s most important mission, educational and community outreach.

At Chelsea’s St. Rose School, Discovery Ensemble’s hour-long program was exceedingly well received. The proceedings involved lots of student/orchestra interaction: a “name that tune/instrument” game, a kind of giant instrument ‘petting zoo’ in which the ensemble’s musicians mingled with the students, and tapping into student responses to the Rossini overture (the famous, pulsing opening of its fast section was described by one as sounding like “something is going to happen” while the scurrying, minor-key explosion that follows it was variously likened to “a car chase,” “a bomb,” and “a scene from an action movie”). Add a bit of award-worthy acting by educational director Michal Shein, and you have a program that was entertaining, memorable, and informative.

Certainly, that’s the goal of music director Courtney Lewis and Ms. Shein. “It’s difficult to make classical music accessible to kids in a traditional setting,” says Ms. Shein, who is also the ensemble’s principal cellist. “So we try to find ways to connect with them and make it relevant to their lives.”

Mr. Lewis echoes this sentiment. “It’s all about presentation,” he says. “We try to find ways for kids to take away the barriers they may feel towards classical music” such as it being the domain of old, rich, predominantly white audiences. The fact that Discovery Ensemble is made up of young musicians mostly in their 20s and 30s and multiethnic certainly doesn’t hurt.

Youngsters react to a visit from the Discovery Ensemble. Photo: Tony Rinaldo

Mr. Lewis, of course, is a protégé of Benjamin Zander, the Boston Philharmonic music director and local musical personality who is known nearly as much for his work as an educator as for his magisterial interpretations of the Mahler symphonies. He was also a 2011/2012 Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a program that includes a strong focus on educational and community outreach.

“Orchestras have to exist in their communities,” Mr. Lewis states. “Programs like these potentially help to build audiences, but it’s also important simply to play live music for people who don’t otherwise get to hear it and to show them that classical music is open to them and relevant.”

It is ironic that the greater Boston area—which is home to some of the finest conservatories and musical institutions in the nation—should, in some neighborhoods particularly, suffer from a dearth of music education in the school system. (Saint Rose School is fortunate in having a vocal music program, though at present it isn’t able to offer instrumental music.) When Mr. Lewis and David St. George founded Discovery Ensemble in 2008, they were both aware of this need and keen to fill the void.

Accordingly, the group established an outreach model that is unique to the region, taking interactive programs to various schools (initially focusing on the Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods) and following that up with a concert at the Strand Theater for students from all the schools they visited. Tuesday’s program in Chelsea was the first in that area and—to judge from the response of teachers, students, and members of the Discovery Ensemble—will not be the last.

“Many students and families can’t afford to go to Symphony Hall” for educational and youth programs, Discovery Ensemble board member William Grote explained to me after Tuesday’s program wrapped up. “So it’s very important for us to be able to come to them.”

And for many of the 200-plus students in attendance on Tuesday, this was their first encounter with an orchestra and with classical music. “It was very nice,” fifth grader Thao-mi said, after her surprise debut as the Ensemble’s conductor (her prize for scoring well in a recent geography bee). Were there any particular instruments that stood out to her? “I already play the piano,” she explained, “but now I’m interested in learning the violin.”

Similarly, third grader Charles Fentress expressed an interest in the bassoon. His favorite moment of the program? “When they played the theme from Mario Brothers, a video game I like,” he shared.

Discovery Ensemble’s Michal Shein speaking to a group of students. Photo: Tony Rinaldo

Of Discovery Ensemble’s educational outreach, Ms. Shein articulates, “Our hope is that these programs open the world of classical music to these students, and that, if they see it in a familiar environment, it won’t be so foreign to them and they’ll be encouraged to continue to explore it.”

“These kids are the future,” Mr. Grote said, gesturing to the assembled throng, “and look at how engaged they are.” In a profession that is often darkly pessimistic about that future (and not without cause), Tuesday’s program was like a breath of fresh air.

Discovery Ensemble is already the local ensemble to watch for their brilliant programming and energized performances. Now add to that their commitment to educational outreach and Boston’s underserved communities. In five short years they’ve already made themselves indispensible; long may they prosper.

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