Making the Arts Accessible: Festival Hosts Ongoing Educational Program

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

'I wasn't sure what the students' reaction would be. It was what you might call highbrow music. Quite complex and modern - less easy perhaps than Mozart or Haydn. But they thoroughly enjoyed it."

Alice Clegg sounds surprised - and impressed.

She is head of the Music Department at Portobello High School in Edinburgh. This lunch-time recital, one in a week-long program bringing top pianists into the modest context of a local school without fee or fanfare, was organized by the three-year-old Education Department of the Edinburgh Festival.

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This young, two-person department aims above all to educate - and enthuse - audiences, both potential and actual. It does this by a variety of projects connecting children and adults to music, dance, and theater. The theory is that direct experience of the very best can effectively break down preconceptions.

Some projects take place during the Edinburgh International Festival in August. Others are now year-round. All are linked to festival concerts and productions.

The pianists at Portobello, who played at two festival concerts in the prestigious Queen's Hall, were extraordinarily intense young Russians. Lost in their music, they shook the music-room piano to its foundations with a cataclysmic, virtuoso performance. Its sticky keys and creaking pedals were subjected to a loud, fast, impassioned hammering.

They played nothing but Stravinsky. Some 18 of Portobello's 1,400 students - and about the same number of staff - sat transfixed. At other schools, as many as 60 students attended. Mrs. Clegg's pupils were greatly impressed by the age of the pianists. Svetlana Smolina is 20. Vakhtang Kodanashvili is 17.

Education has undoubtedly been intrinsic to the half-century-old festival from the start. In the 1950s, Yehudi Menuhin played in an outlying cinema to bring "highbrow" music to people who would never have dreamed of going to hear him in the eminent Usher Hall. The perception of elitist intimidation, a criticism so often leveled at the arts today, is not as new as the people today might imagine.

Today, however, in Edinburgh there is a fresh recognition of the need to show that the main festival, though it aims at the highest and best of the performing arts available, is not inaccessible either aesthetically or financially.

A main idea, says Sally Hobson, program manager, is to do away with the "social baggage that is associated with 'high art.' Quite what that is, I don't really know." She likes to quote the saying that "education is taking empty minds and making them open."

If her department's function seems dangerously close to marketing, then Ms. Hobson is not at all abashed.

"We are audience-developing as well as educating. And we are not embarrassed by that. We say that as an audience member you can be as creative as a performer. We say, 'Don't be intimidated by the amount of intellectual heavyweightness that is around music. Listen to music.' " She encourages listeners to cultivate inner quietness. And to trust their own responses.

One of the things she tells children (along with advice on audience etiquette like "not rustling sweet-papers or rushing up and down aisles") is to notice how they themselves contribute to the atmosphere of a performance."

During this year's festival, the department has organized many events, including a popular program of daily "Insights" that brings performers and directors face-to-face with festivalgoers keen to ask questions. A series of lunch-time lectures have also been well attended. So have piano and dance master classes; a lively workshop conducted by actors from Nottingham Playhouse, here for its production of "Measure for Measure"; and a dance summer school for children by American dance teachers.

Earlier this year, two male dancers from San Francisco Ballet gave two weeks of workshops for boys aimed at "demystifying ballet." Out of the 600 who attended, over 300 asked to go to the company's festival performances.

* The Edinburgh International Festival ends Aug. 30. For information, visit the Web site at www.go-edinburgh.co.uk

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