by Sherry Campbell Bechtold, Published in Florida weekly, March 2014
One week a month during Symphony season, Maestro Raffaele Ponti is in town, scurrying about from elementary schools working with third graders, to civic meetings, and teaching classes at the Renaissance Academy, along with all his other orchestra business.
On the weekend, the Orchestra rehearses for its Sunday concert. At around 12:30 on Saturday, the kids arrive. They are there because of the instrument they play and their love of orchestral music. Many come with a parent or teacher, some older students might be alone. There may be a half dozen, or ten, or more. They come without their instruments because this is a time for observation, for listening, for watching. These kids are some of the many whose lives are being directly affected by Maestro Ponti, the Orchestra’s Executive Director Regina Buckley, and the many volunteers who carry out the Orchestra’s new educational initiative, the “Symphony Kids”. This monthly rehearsal experience is called “Musical Chairs”.
Maestro Point initiated the program to provide up close and personal time on the stage, seated in the section of the student’s interest, next to a professional musician, as the Maestro conducts a rehearsal of music that will be played in the following evening’s concert. Even though a student may have performed in his or her own school concerts, Musical Chairs is a unique opportunity to be a ‘fly on the wall’ as the Maestro and Concertmaster mold and shape a symphony, concerto or overture.
They are met by a volunteer of the Orchestra, whose role is to check them in, place their name tag with the designated section, talk about what is going to happen and hopefully work out some nerves. By this point in the season, many have been here before. They know the drill. At the next rehearsal, there will be an added treat – violist Paul Urbanick will be giving a brief introduction to the music being rehearsed, suggesting specific things to be listening for and perhaps even some challenges musicians face in preparing the piece for performance.
Just before 1:00, everyone is brought onstage and the Orchestra Stage Manager escorts everyone to their assigned seats. Some will be tucked in with the Brass, some with Wind, some with Strings and even sometimes Percussion. Getting seated before Maestro takes the podium at exactly 1:00 PM is critical – the orchestra rehearses only Saturday and Sunday before performing on Sunday evening, so there is no time to waste. Almost immediately, Maestro is in place, and indicates a start point. The students land somewhere in the vast landscape of the composition and away they go. There are stops, suggestions, corrections. Maestro asks for more from the violins, less from trombones, a lighter touch from percussion. Listening, we all can hear the music refine and blossom, on its way to become what a full audience will experience just a day later.
Sometimes, it’s extra special, like in February when Robert Bonfiglio joined the orchestra onstage to prepare the Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto. Here is the greatest Harmonica player in the world, in his jeans and sneakers, collaborating with our very own Maestro and our very own Symphony Orchestra. Creating, exploring, having the time of their lives. And, these kids are right there with them. No formality here. No tuxes. No big audiences. Just musicians doing what they love to do. What an inspiration to young minds! What a thrill for all of us who were there that afternoon.
When the Orchestra stops for a break, the kids gather in the front row of the audience seats where Maestro Ponti meets with them. He asks them “what did you think?” “how did the music make you feel?” And on this particular day, “did you ever think a harmonica could sound like that?” He is so enthusiastic and engaging, even the most shy among them speak up “it made me feel happy” “excited” “it made me think”.
On this day, Bonfiglio wants to play too and comes down to visit the kids. He charms everyone with stories about living in New York City, playing harmonica, traveling around the world. Parents are gathered around too, with questions of their own – but they take the back seat to the kids. It really is all about them today.
Ask Maestro Ponti, on any day, about his commitment to our youth and future musical culture. He’ll be delighted to talk about it:
“The best way to teach and inspire is to demonstrate and involve the students….mentoring is the most effective way of demonstrating and inspiring our future musicians. Being enveloped in the wonderful sound of the orchestra is an amazing experience. Musical Chairs lets students experience a perspective of the Orchestra that not even the audience can understand. My hope is that kids run home and practice!”
And, what do the Musical Chairs’ participants have to say?
“I really enjoyed sitting with the brass section and appreciated the opportunity to learn from the masters. It was very exciting…I hope to be able to attend this kind of rehearsal again sometime soon” said Allison Deal, trumpet player and student at L.A. Ainger Middle School.
Good Shepherd Day School student, Luke Peterson sat in the trumpet section and commented that it was “amazing”. His mom, Kathryn, wrote that Musical Chairs “was a great success for the children and parents alike.” And further, this program “will most certainly be a positive influence in our young musicians’ lives.”
Some just say, “that was cool!”
On Saturday, March 22, they will be doing it all again! Music teachers and parents are invited to sign up their young musicians to participate in Musical Chairs simply by contacting the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in Punta Gorda, 941 205 9743. This month, the Orchestra will be performing a TRIUMPHANT finale to an incredible season. On the program is von Suppe, Stravinsky and Hanson. And, they will be there on Saturday to give Symphony Kids a preview of the concert – up close and personal
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