Guest Conductor David Mairs led the Austin Symphony Orchestra in a special concert at Austin High, and connected the dots for students between classical music and today’s popular music. – photo by Joanne Foote
by Joanne Foote
Engaging many teenagers in classical music can be an arduous task. But last month during a special concert at Austin High School, The Austin Symphony Orchestra was able to demonstrate the importance of musical accomplishments of the past, to present popular music, connecting the dots for many students.
On January 18th, Austin High School students filed into the gymnasium for a special assembly. It began like most assemblies, with students finding their seats and asked to be on their best behavior. Assemblies often imply a chance to be out of class, a chance to sit with their friends, and for some brings boredom, but hopefully also a glimpse at something they haven’t seen or heard before.
For many, the last seemed to be true on this day. The Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO) treated students to a special concert, which is part of the 2013 High School Concert Tour of the Austin Symphony Orchestra called “Bringin’ It Your Way,” and is part of the James C. Armstrong Youth Education Endowment of the ASO. But still, you could read it in their eyes, “A symphony assembly? How long will this take? I hope it doesn’t put me to sleep!” The concert got under way as Emcee Marco Perella introduced the ASO and its guest conductor, David Mairs.
After a brief introduction, Perella and Mairs jumped right into to things, leading the audience in a discussion about a famous piece of music, Johann Strauss’ “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.” The symphony played the first well-known notes followed by an explanation about how popular music pulls from classical music. However, ASO went one step further, actively demonstrating the connection as Mairs broke into a song that the students could relate to, entitled, “Everybody Talks,” by Neon Trees. Everyone was caught by surprise at not only hearing the orchestra play a popular tune, but even more so at a singing maestro. Students rapidly joined in, singing, laughing and clapping.
Now that Mairs had their attention, the show really began. “Many famous classical pieces were not originally that popular. But composers took what was perceived at the time as innovative and sometimes unpopular liberties with music. However, much of popular music can be traced to classical pieces, just by taking those familiar famous first notes and changing them around a bit to make a new piece of music,” explained Mairs.
“Another example of how music is built on some very basic notes is Stravinsky’s ‘Infernal Dance’ from Firebird Suite, which is a ballet based on an old folktale. He builds this piece from three notes—that’s it,” explained Perella.
Perella guided the audience through another example of how a piece of music can be based on just a few notes “Here’s a composer that took four notes and made a variation on them,” Cue the orchestra who played Beethoven’s Fifth. “Does anyone know who this is?” asked Perella. Several students called out the correct answer.
Perella continued, “Now, here is a different composer that took four notes, (as the orchestra played them slowly in the background), but in this case the artist decided to put the first two together then, the third and fourth together. The music develops from there,” he said. The Orchestra began to play the popular hit “Call Me Maybe,” by Carly Rae Jepsen. Students showed audible excitement at yet another tune in which they could relate. “Hey I just met you and this is crazy, but here’s my number, so call me maybe!” sang Perella, as the orchestra played.
As part of the concert, ten Austin High Students were selected to join the symphony as they played, ‘Hoedown’ from Rodeo, by Aaron Copeland. Five students from the Austin High orchestra and the Austin High Band, respectively, were chosen to play with the ASO based on their achievements in district, region and/or state band.
Mrs. Ana-Marie Solis has been the orchestra director at Austin high for eight years. “The symphony visits our school every other year—their goal is to visit all the Austin area high schools in a two-year period. It was very difficult to choose only five orchestra students to perform because we have so many talented kids. For many students, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend this type of event. And for the students performing, it is an aspiration for them to continue music,” said Solis.
Band member Nolan Read, a senior who plays trumpet, enjoyed his first experience with the ASO. ”This was the first time I have played with the symphony. It was a bit like being thrown into the fire—we only had one rehearsal together, but it was a great experience.”
Jacob Hope, a junior at Austin High, plays the string bass in the orchestra. “This year, I made all region band, fourth chair, and was one chair away from making state. I also play with the Austin Youth Orchestra, and we played with the Austin Symphony at their winter concert, so I have performed with this group before. It is lot of fun.”
“There are not a lot of bass players, and especially those that can play both electric and stand-up bass, which I do,” said Hope. “Right now I am part of a band called ‘The Bare Feat,’ which is a 9-member group that plays funk-rock-alternative music, for lack of a better classification! We play all original compositions and I plan to continue playing beyond high school.”
Don Hill, Director of Public Relations with the ASO, said, “Austin High has always been one of our biggest concerts. They seem to have the whole school attend and the principal and music teachers really love when we are able to bring the orchestra to them. The High School Concert Tour has been a part of the ASO’s arsenal of youth education programs for over 30 years, and is welcomed by Austin ISD as an additional fine arts program they can help present to their students,”
Each concert closes with a surprise spirit-filled finale, an orchestrated version of their high school fight song conducted by his or her own school’s music director. In this case, the guest conductor and Austin High student Myles Miller led the orchestra in the final song, the Austin High fight song, as the gym was filled with the rhythmic clapping by students who joined in.
“The concerts this year were fantastic, and I believe the students really loved them. We have been working more popular tunes into these concerts in recent years to show the kids how classical music is not just for the ‘old folks’ and how it has influenced the music that they are listening to today. “We were fortunate enough to bring the concerts to the students at Austin High, and we could not have asked for a warmer reception,” Hill added.
This year the ASO brought the concert to the following Austin ISD high schools: Anderson, Austin, Bowie, Crockett, and LBJ. They also made their first appearance in the Round Rock School district at Cedar Ridge.
The Austin Symphony Orchestra’s mission is to present its High School Concerts to provide quality educational programming and motivation for the student population of Central Texas. Whether they’re toddlers or graduates, students are constantly exposed to various musical programs featuring musicians of the ASO. The ASO hopes that its outstanding fusion of music, education, and students’ musical accomplishments will seduce ambitious musicians as well as give outstanding students the chance of a lifetime. Also featured in these concerts were performances by the teenage winners of the Austin Symphony Youth Awards and winning compositions of the ASO’s Young Composers Competition from around central Texas.