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In The First Violins — At Least For One Night

Orchestras and classical musicians all around the country are trying to figure out new ways of reaching audiences, from playing at IKEA (the Detroit Symphony Orchestra) to hosting fantasy camps (violin legend Itzhak Perlman). The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra pioneered its own experiment Saturday night, when they invited the public to play with them, if only for a few minutes, in an initiative dubbed #OrchestraYou.

After a concert at Newark's New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) that featured Hilary Hahn as soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto, a recent Esa-Pekka Salonen piece called Giro and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, a group of about 75 players — ranging from professional musicians in the NJSO and the Los Angeles Philharmonic to students and amateurs of all ages, from white-haired enthusiasts to kids whose feet couldn't quite touch the floor — crowded into the lobby, along with a surprising number of spectators, to make our way through the "Toreadors" section from Bizet's Carmen Suite.

The only pre-performance requirements were BYOI — bring your own instrument — and a polite plea to please, please practice your part. And while the NJSO isn't the first to try out an experiment like this — the Baltimore Symphony did something similar (if more technically demanding) with Marin Alsop back in 2010, and the Pittsburgh and Virginia symphonies before that — this was both pretty local and low-stakes. So, summoning a little courage, I took up a violin I had at home and starting practicing positions on the fingerboard I hadn't seriously attempted in a good, ahem, twenty years.

Jeffrey Grogan is the ebullient education and community engagement conductor at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra as well as artistic director of El Sistema-inspired programs in Newark and Paterson, N.J. He said this initiative was the brainchild of the development and education staffs: "In many respects, this is just another offshoot of the NJSO's mission." Along with its "home" performances at NJPAC, Grogan said, the orchestra performs regularly in five different major venues across the state and, over the course of a multi-year cycle, its musicians visit and perform in all of New Jersey's 21 counties.

That sentiment was reflected and amplified by James Roe, the orchestra's new president and CEO — and also its former acting principal oboist. He received his promotion after the NJSO took a bad bet on disgraced former Brooklyn Philharmonic administrator Richard Dare, who resigned after nine days on the job. Roe took his new position in July.

NJSO president and CEO James Roe addresses the musicians and audience.
Fred Stucker / Courtesy of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
Courtesy of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
NJSO president and CEO James Roe addresses the musicians and audience.

"Our aim," Roe told me, "is not to have a 'broadcast' mentality, but to find ways to enjoy music together, really side by side. And this seemed like a perfect way to help accomplish that."

Before Grogan began conducting us — with a brief, three or four-minute "rehearsal" preceding the performance — Hilary Hahn was invited to speak to the assembled musicians and audience members. She noted that among her own most cherished teachers is the composer Jennifer Higdon, who taught a class on modern music while Hahn was a student at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. "She opened my ears to 20th-century music," said Hahn, who has gone on to collaborate closely with Higdon. The undercurrent? You never know where a shared love of music might lead.

"Les Toreadors" is a piece that offers obvious benefits: one page long, not too hard, very well-known and a surefire crowd pleaser. (While I was making my way through the crowded lobby toward my seat with violin and bow in hand, a couple of concertgoers stopped me to ask what we would be playing. When I told them, they replied, without irony and in absolute unison: "Ooooooooh!") And it was amazing to see how much of the audience stayed after the concert to cheer on the assembled forces.

To the relief of all present and for the historical record, you can't see or hear me at the back of the first violin section, at least in the video that's up on YouTube. Note to the nice young woman who was my stand partner: You're a talented musician with wonderful tone and excellent articulation — and you covered up my faking very gracefully and graciously. Thank you. And to the lady who won the benefit auction at intermission to play the triangle part: Your $550 was well spent.

After the last notes sounded, I wandered through a sea of stands to chat with a trio of beaming bassoonists: 19-year-old Jessica Hughes, who also studies clarinet with NJSO clarinetist Andy Lamy; 15-year-old Natangel Robinson, who has been playing bassoon for all of seven months; and Cecilia Sweeney, an older amateur. ("Let's just say that unlike Natangel, I'm not in high school.")

Robinson told me that playing with this group, even for literally just a few minutes, was simply amazing. "I got such a feeling of ... euphoria," he told me, searching for just the right word. "There's nothing like this. There's so much energy here, so much of a sense that you're part of something much bigger than yourself."

If this kind of effort catches fire either in New Jersey or nationally, all the better. Not only was it incredibly fun, but it served as a good reminder that music-making shouldn't be divided into producers and consumers, with most people locked into a passive experience. After the performance, I was talking with Lamy when Charlene Green, the assistant head usher at NJPAC, came over to us, smiling. She turned to the clarinetist and said, "This makes me want to dust off my clarinet."

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
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