On Saturday afternoon Bard College hosted the Take a Stand Festival Orchestra, an orchestra composed of 170 players from the eastern half of the United States, from Maine to Florida and westward to Ohio. Seats for these players, from the age of 7 to 15, were selected through national competition.
Juan Felipe Molano, recently a graduate of the Vienna Conservatory and currently a teacher at Bard’s Boston Longy School of Music, conducted the Orchestra in the Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Saëns. The orchestra played with energy, enthusiasm, and remarkable unity by earnest young students who played like professional adults. Optimistic expectations were exceeded. The climax was a wow moment.
Moving on to excerpts from the movie Star Wars by John Williams offered an opportunity for strings to set more ambient mood and for horns to shine.
Academic Festival Overture by Johannes Brahms offered the opportunity to preview the work by singing the scales of the four anthems Brahms employed when composing. Not only did this exercise drive home the point that music was a universal language, this “nonsense” scale singing illustrated the contagious group transcendence that often occurs in orchestras or groups when singing in unified spirit. Leon Botstein then appeared to make a few remarks about the student stay of five days leading up to this concert. Botstein then conducted the piece and I was struck that I had once before heard Botstein conduct this piece with the Bard Conservatory Orchestra. Here were these seven and nine year-olds matching what I had previously heard.
Several lyric poems written by students who participated in a five day writing workshop were recited. These poems were simple, elemental, and eloquent. It would be difficult to find better poetry in current literary magazines.
They concluded with the piece I was most looking forward to: Astor Piazolla’s Libertango. A truly fun, infectious romp, this piece permitted various sections of the orchestra to show off a bit: horns, including slide, French, trumpet, and trombone, as well as percussionists and an oboe soloist. Those vibrant castanets still ring in my ears as I write.
The concert attended by about two hundred people was free and open to the public. Take a Stand, a partnership of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Bard College and the Longy School of Music of Bard College, is an innovative initiative that supports social change through music. Inspired by El Sistema, Venezuela’s revolutionary music education program, Take a Stand supports performances and programs through national and international conferences, as well as bestowing a degree of Master of Arts in Teaching Music.
The National Take a Stand Festival is a three-year project begun in 2015 with a teacher-training pilot program. In 2016, it features two regional youth orchestra festivals: one at Aspen Music Festival and School and one at Bard College. Next year, the festival will feature a seven-day national youth orchestra program and a final performance in Los Angeles, led by Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, himself a graduate of Venezuela’s El Sistema, and featuring young musicians from both regional festivals.