Minnesota Orchestra's Answer To the 'Graying' of Audiences

It's an intriguing concept - a music video for kids that's part animated story, part symphonic concert, seamlessly blending text and visuals to bring a popular children's book to life with shots of musicians playing an original score.

The Minnesota Orchestra calls it a "storyconcert," and they just released what they hope will be the first of a series of such projects with "On the Day You Were Born," a 30-minute music video based on Debra Frasier's award-winning book of the same name.

"Our objectives are multifold," says executive producer E.B. Gill, the orchestra's vice president and chief financial officer. "We want to generate new revenue streams for the orchestra, but still meet our mission to develop greater outreach into the community," he explains. "Here we've got something that is both entertainment and musically educating to get kids interested in classical music.

"We also want to raise recognition of the Minnesota Orchestra as a leader in outreach. We feel music education in the communities and schools is dying, and we're trying to bump up some life in it - it's an important mission for orchestras everywhere."

The production is part of the orchestra's "NotesAlive!" series geared to children aged 3 to 11. The orchestra plans to release at least two storyconcerts a year, all based on popular children's books and using original scores.

Though the first production cost roughly half a million dollars to produce, the concept is being extremely well received (two prestigious awards are in the offing), so the orchestra is hopeful their project will be a major financial success.

The initial collaboration, spurred by the Minnesota Commissioning Club, resulted in an 18-minute narrated concert piece with music by composer Steven Heitzeg, which the Minnesota Orchestra successfully premired last year and has since been performed by a number of American orchestras. Based on Ms. Frasier's poignant book, which since 1991 has sold nearly 600,000 copies and has already become a children's classic, the work is a celebration of the natural world and its impact on the birth of a child.

The video brings the visual element into the partnership. The animation, which keeps the tone of Frasier's original paper cut-out illustrations, brings vivid action to the story's cast of characters - herds of migrating animals, the sun, the moon, rain, trees, and the family of the newborn child, the "you" of the story. And Heitzeg's music brings a warm lyricism and Copland-esque grandeur to the story as it unfolds.

What makes the project unique is the extra care taken to integrate the orchestra into all this. During longer musical interludes, shots of the orchestra playing the piece are overlaid onto scenes from the book. We are subtly reminded that this is a living, breathing collaboration of many artistic endeavors.

But as the story progresses, narrated by Frasier herself with an earnest, slightly breathy sense of wonder, there are longer sections that allow the poetry and imagery of the story to take over. It is deftly constructed and remarkably well balanced, as well as quite moving.

The piece itself is framed with an amiable introduction and conclusion by the orchestra's associate conductor, William Eddins, who conducts the performance. Mr. Eddins talks about the ways the music and animation work together, suggests things to watch and listen for, and poses questions to the two creators, who take us back to their childhood homes and give some sense of their aesthetic values and their individual creative processes.

Eddins then sums it up with words that should resonate powerfully in any creative child's ears: "The message I got from Steve and Debra is to go for your dreams. If you've got a story up here [head] or some music right here [heart], write it down. Share it with friends. Who knows where it may lead?"

*'On the Day You Were Born' is available by calling 1-888-MN-NOTES.

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