Music appreciation for couch potatoes

Discovery Concerts, airing on PBS, teach audiences how to listen to classical music.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Classical music in America is thriving. It is the audience that's vanishing. So say conductors and music teachers who believe we are hearing music, but we aren't listening.

"I go to schools and ask children if they have ever heard a classical music piece," says Barbara Barstow, creative director of the New Jersey Youth Symphony here and Conductor of the Symphonia. "They say no. Then I play the 'Can-Can' or 'William Tell Overture' for them, and every single hand goes up in recognition."

Mrs. Barstow gives a rueful smile, "They heard the 'Can-Can,' and they all started singing the Shoprite commercial. They heard 'William Tell' and shouted out, 'Bugs Bunny!' "

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According to those who run the state's largest music programs, people are more likely to associate the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor with Frankenstein or Boris Karloff than J.S. Bach. If you mention "Carmina Burana" or its German composer Carl Orff, blank stares ensue until you mention "Conan the Barbarian," or any hack-and-slash sword scene set to one snippet of the piece.

PBS, together with conductor George Marriner Maull, music director of the Philharmonic Orchestra of New Jersey, say they have a solution. The Discovery Concert Series of interactive music-appreciation events is attempting to extricate classical performances from the miasma of modern life, where it plays second fiddle to everything from linguine to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Since it began last year, the concert series has proven to be a huge success, selling out months in advance, according to Mr. Maull. Concerts take place in Newark at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and are aired on local and, increasingly, national PBS stations.

The concerts are interactive in the style of a college class in music theory and have covered pieces by Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, and Claude Debussy. The series examines entire pieces in a stop-and-start format wherein Maull explains movements and nuances to the audience, which follows along using special programs that contain diagrams, music passages, and other helpful tidbits.

Arrows stretch across the staff to help listeners follow the various instruments as they come and go in the piece. During "Bach to the Future," which examines the third movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, listeners are asked to follow the "subject" line of music as it ebbs and flows.

There is quite a lot of discussion among listeners, much like a class of freshmen comparing notes before anyone dares to raise a hand to answer. People clap out rhythms or call out answers to questions about how many times a particular melody is repeated in a movement. There is no pressure, except that which is self-imposed by listeners attempting to impress their dates.

"People [typically] come to a concert, and they spend their time reading the program sponsors, or checking out the rather attractive person five rows over," Maull says. "I know this may sound silly, but the composers were really hoping we would give their music our full attention. It is as if they were speaking to us and we are only catching every other paragraph."

He adds, "For some reason, probably during elementary school, music became a chore. It was something you just soldiered through."

Susan Solomon of Parsippany, N.J., attended one Discovery Concert on Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" as part of a giveaway done by law firm Drinker, Biddle and Reese, where she is a legal secretary. "It was an education for me," she says. "There were a number of musical novices who went with our firm, and it was enjoyed by all."

She says she was "captivated" by the mellifluous tones of Maull's voice as he taught listeners by running through the various measures and movements in the piece. "The narration was done exceptionally well," she says. "I've always listened to this piece, but never really realized how much there was to it."

March Califre of Wayne, N.J., who attended the Vivaldi concert says, "I thought the conductor's commentary was extremely useful in understanding the music. I always loved the 'Four Seasons,' but, to be honest, I never knew which season was which before I went to this concert."

A drawback of the series is that if you're not enamored of the piece being scrutinized, you may become bored.

"Bach to the Future," which plays only one movement, is a close shave. However, the Philharmonic has since expanded the playlist to include the entire work of whatever artist it is seeking to enhance. Concerts now give the audience "more bang for the buck," as Maull is fond of saying.

The project is one of the few Maull has embarked upon in which funding hasn't been a problem. "It is currently easier for an orchestra to acquire a grant to fund a televised series where videotapes can be sold and a wider audience reached than one taking place fleetingly on a local level," he says.

"Our hope is that things like the Discovery Concerts will get people so involved in concerts that there will be more of a demand," he adds.

Music educators around New Jersey are taking their cues from the series, trying to build audiences through innovative music-appreciation programs and watching the tapes of Discovery Concerts in the classroom.

"If you want children to come to concerts, then you have to train them, and their parents, to find enjoyment in the music," says Marianne Lauffer, president of the New Jersey Music Teachers' Association.

"We have been making a serious mistake in our teaching of music," she adds. "We have been teaching students to play the notes, but not spending enough time helping them and their families, together, to love music."

Maull hopes to reach both adults and children. "Once people learn how to listen to music they want to do it again and again," he says. "They get waves and waves of pleasure from it."

For more information go to www.ponj.org.

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