Monday, November 15, 2010

Steven Smith and the Vision Thing

Richmond Symphony Music Director Steven Smith delivered the talk at this past Friday's "Eyes on Richmond" series. I covered it for the Times-Dispatch, but the article, which ran Saturday, isn't posted online. You can read it at the end of this post.

His 25-minute speech rambled around in the Great Plans territory. There was a jackalope sighting ("a vision that we'll be able to put an instrument into the hands of every single young person"), and several trailheads were spotted but not confirmed to lead anywhere (vague references to desirable partnerships with regional institutions).

Okay, so I'm being too clever. But listen to the questions people asked in the Q&A session afterward:

-What is a conductor really doing up on stage during a concert?

-How do you respond to potential donors who say that they shouldn't have to pick up the government's slack when funding for music education is cut from public schools?

-When the symphony is planning a whole season, how do you decide how much/which new music to program?

-If you were to write a symphony that incorporated both "Give me liberty or give me death" and "I have a dream," what would it sound like?

Also, I ran into an acquaintance the next evening who had attended the lecture. He said he wanted to ask how the symphony could make good on Smith's expressed desire to make concerts "accessible"-- for people like himself and his wife, who have three children. (He meant ticket prices, mostly.)

For the most part, these people sought concrete information. Whether or not that day's disconnect between what Smith wanted to say and what people wanted to learn is representative of anything larger, I don't know. (But of course the fact that I wrote that sentence means I think it's worth considering.)

Smith did mention specific things the Richmond Symphony could do to "energize the tradition" and bring people together: hold post-concert talk-backs, invite writers or painters to be guest artists, and do something with VUU (a historically black college/university), among other ideas. However, it was impossible to tell which items, if any, were actually being planned and which were probably long-distant or even pipe dreams.
I wish he had told a story from his own experience that supported his claim, "Arts bring us together as human beings to allow us to explore world in ways we might not have otherwise thought of."

And y'know, I do think visions are important. If you really do dream of putting an instrument in the hands of every child, hopefully you'll start doing it one child at a time. (The RSO's Symphony at School program, for which the Nov. 21 Come and Play event is a fundraiser, does some instrument donation, and the Richmond Concert Band has been doing it for many years..)

Here's the article as I submitted it:

In a world that seems to have moved beyond the possibility of civil discourse, the arts can be a way to bring people back together, said Steven Smith, music director of the Richmond Symphony. He added that Virginia, home of history's greatest political and cultural discussions, is a natural place to “recapture” a spirit of cooperation. In particular, the Richmond Symphony can bring people together using the medium of music.

Smith spoke Friday at the Eyes on Richmond lecture series held at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. The title of his talk, “Richmond Changes its Tune,” was assigned to him, he said, and he decided to approach it from the perspective of a composer. 

When writing music, composers will change a tune by “playing around with it … turning it upside-down and backwards, taking it apart, playing with its structure or harmony.”

In that sense, the Richmond Symphony can change or “energize” its tune not by discarding a time-honored repertoire but by sharing music in new ways.

For example, it can program compositions that use influences from various musical traditions, create concert experiences that include art forms such as architecture, art and literature, and find community partnerships that result in “thought-provoking opportunities for everyone,” he said.

Smith discussed the importance of music and the arts in education. Participation in the arts can teach young people the same things as sports participation does, as well as nurture “creative health.” He said that arts institutions should be catalysts for promoting the value of the arts for learning.

Smith described three of the Richmond Symphony's education programs and said, “It doesn't have to stop there. I have a vision that we'll be able to put an instrument into the hands of every single young person” or give all children the chance to sing in a chorus.

To address the problem of polarization and the lack of civil discourse, arts institutions should use the arts to “explore aspects of critical thinking.” He added, “Arts bring us together as human beings and allow us to explore the world in ways we might not have otherwise thought of.”

The Richmond Symphony's challenge is to communicate this vision to new generations and a “much, much wider audience.”

Smith said he is looking forward to participating in the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War, which he called an opportunity to bring people together. He also mentioned the orchestra's goals of giving more outdoor performances and creating more community partnerships, such as with Virginia Union University, MCV, history museums and other regional institutions.

“I believe the symphony can touch the life of every single person in this community,” he said. 

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