Children’s concerts help to spark a lifelong appreciation of music

William Buchman, assistant principal bassoon, lets children get a close-up look during a CSO Family Matinee concert.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Count Gabby Rosenblum among the believers. A veteran music teacher in Oak Park Elementary School District No. 97, Rosenblum has brought third graders to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s school concerts for years. “In Chicago, there are so many great cultural opportunities, and having the opportunity to introduce my students to one — it’s wonderful,” she said. “And $5 a ticket? Hello, it’s still the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I just feel like it’s a really valuable experience for them.”

Throughout the 2018-19 season, the CSO is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its children’s concerts — what Jon Weber, director of school and family programs for the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute, calls a “huge milestone.” “The Chicago Symphony,” he said, “is one the very few orchestras in the country that can boast that kind of continuous commitment in a series like this.”

At the behest of then-music director Frederick Stock, the CSO presented its first children’s concert on Nov. 20, 1919. Less than three months later, 8-year-old Anita Malkin became the first youth soloist at such an event, presenting the first movement of Pierre Rode’s Violin Concerto No. 8 with the orchestra. The six concerts scattered across the 1919-20 season took place at 4 p.m. on Thursday afternoons, with seats ranging from 15 cents in the gallery to $1 in the boxes. “The programs . . . were prepared by Mr. Stock with due regard to the tastes of the little folks, and, with the conductor’s explanations, filled an hour of delight for old and young,” wrote Philo Adams Otis in his history of the orchestra from its founding in 1891 through 1924.

Guest conductor Edwin Outwater leads CSO members in “Let’s Explore” concerts, part of the orchestra’s Family Matinee series, in March.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

In the 100 years since, those six weekday concerts have evolved into a far more ambitious and varied series that will involve some 45,000 adults and children in 2018-19. The CSO will present 10 school performances designed for pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade and six performances as part of its Family Matinee Series on Saturdays. The latter began Dec. 1 with two performances of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, featuring guest artists from Chicago’s famed improv-comedy troupe The Second City, and will continue March 30 and May 18. Also on the schedule is the Once Upon a Symphony series, shorter, smaller-scale concerts designed for children 3 to 5 years old.

While these young people’s concerts might not have the same prominence as an international tour, CSO musicians take them equally seriously. “If we do a good job, we’re doing maybe the most important thing we can do with music, which is to capture the imagination of a child,” said CSO trumpet John Hagstrom. “The orchestra members know this, because they can remember how they first discovered classical music as youngsters.”

Hagstrom, who grew up in Elmhurst, recalls going to a children’s concert as part of a fifth-grade field trip. While his attention wandered at times — he recalls counting the light bulbs in Orchestra Hall — the concert nonetheless had a big impact. “I remember being engaged, and feeling music doing something to me that I couldn’t even control,” he said. “I just loved it so much. It made me smile; it gave me goosebumps, and I wasn’t used to that. I didn’t even know I could feel that way.”

The mission of the children’s concerts has changed little from those first ones in 1919-20. Concerned that pupils were not getting exposure to music in their day-to-day education, Stock wanted to give them a chance to experience the power of orchestra music. At the same time, such offerings were critical to the CSO’s own survival, planting the seeds for these pupils to later make music a career or become orchestra subscribers.

Both national research and studies undertaken by the Chicago Symphony have shown that people who play in a band or orchestra as children or sing in a choir are much more likely to attend orchestra concerts as adults. “This is kind of Johnny Appleseed work,” said Gene Pokorny, the CSO’s principal tuba.

What has changed is a greater urgency behind that mission. It can be argued that classical music is slipping further and further from the cultural mainstream, and orchestras increasingly must contend with aging audiences and stagnant and even declining ticket sales. While some school districts have bolstered their music offerings in recent years or found ways to add supplemental learning opportunities provided by partner organizations, many have little or no music education as part of their curricula, a gap that the CSO is trying to fill.

The concerts themselves are both the same and different. Like Stock’s original programs, today’s children’s offerings run about an hour and feature varied lineups of classical repertoire with a variety of sounds, styles and moods. While Britten’s Young Person’s Guide was written in 1945, other works like the popular waltz, The Blue Danube, which was featured on that first concert in November 1919, are just as likely to be found on a program now. “It says something about the durability or the infinite appeal and sustainability of the repertoire to see those pieces performed today,” Weber said.

While oral histories suggest that Stock used some kind of projections as part of his commentary from the podium, multimedia elements now play a significantly enhanced role, as orchestras respond to the onslaught of visuals that is just a normal part of young people’s lives today. In addition, the children’s programs often have themes and involve an array of collaborators, such as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago or the Magic Circle Mime Company. Last March, guest conductor Edwin Outwater teamed with Emily Graslie, chief curiosity correspondent for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, for a program titled Let’s Explore! Graslie is the writer, producer, co-creator and host of “The Brain Scoop,” an educational YouTube channel that offers behind-the-scenes looks at the museum’s vast holdings.

“For families, and kids especially, we know they just want to have a good time,” Weber said. “And we’re competing with so many so other options for their entertainment and enrichment experiences, so there is some degree of marketing appeal that we strive for across the programs each year.”

Before each CSO Family Matinee, children participate in pre-concert activities, such as viewing a dinosaur skull on loan from the Field Museum.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

To make sure that all pupils, no matter their financial resources, can attend the school concerts, the CSO has supplied ticket subsidies and covered transportation costs as necessary. But for this centennial season, the CSO is going even further, providing free tickets to all attending students from the Chicago Public Schools and paying all transportation expenses. The response has been tremendous. “Every child in our city has the right to experience the power of live music,” Weber said. “There are fewer and fewer opportunities for many students to really understand what an orchestra is, and it’s an important responsibility for an institution like the CSO to assert that as many students as possible can have access to this.”

Although today’s children are growing up in a high-tech world where the internet, social media and smartphones are the norm, they still light up during a children’s concert just as youngsters did 100 years earlier. That said, it’s important that they are properly prepared to appreciate the experience. “If you just make them listen to classical music without setting it up, without telling them the story, they’re not going to enjoy it,” Rosenblum said.

To that end, Rosenblum gives her pupils background on the compositions they will hear during a concert, explains the reasons the works were composed and even offers personal insights when appropriate. Helping her in this process are Negaunee Institute-produced teachers’ guides, which include two preparatory lessons and post-concert discussion topics.

At the same time, the teacher explains the audience protocol for a classical concert and how it differs from attending a rock concert or basketball game. If students understand the expected behavior, they feel more comfortable. “For a lot of our kids, this is their first time going to a live concert,” she said. “And they’re very excited about it with the red-velvet seats and [being] up in the balcony. It’s the whole experience for them.”

That experience certainly had an impact on Earl Rusnak, 87, who grew up in Evanston and now serves as a member of the CSO Board of Trustees. He’s also one of the founding board members of the Negaunee Institute, which oversees all of the CSO’s community engagement and educational and training programs. Though his memories of the music itself are hazy, he recalls having to wear a white shirt and “scratchy wool pants” while traveling downtown on the L in the 1930s with his mother and brother to attend one of the CSO’s children’s concerts when Stock was still music director.

“It must have meant something to me and made me aware that this symphony existed,” he said. “Certainly, when I came back from graduate school with my wife, we never hesitated — we started getting season tickets, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

He is among the thousands whose lives have been transformed in some big or small way because Frederick Stock and the CSO realized in 1919 that giving children even just one chance to hear orchestral music was important. “I think it was incredibly forward-thinking to assert that children in Chicago should have access to this kind of introductory learning experience, and I think it is remarkable that the CSO has continued to prioritize this kind of programming,” Weber said.

Indeed, the CSO is doing everything it can to make sure that the children’s concerts are around for a bicentennial celebration in 2118-19.