"Listening is an active experience," says Scott Parkman, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra's assistant conductor. In his third season, Parkman has put that theory into practice, both as music director of the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, as well as the principal conductor and teacher for the Education Concerts at Powell Symphony Hall. Parkman makes sure that the thousands of schoolchildren who come to hear the SLSO each season get the message. They clap the rhythms, count the beats, and sing the melodies the musicians play. They manage to learn while scarcely realizing that they're being taught, as the best education often happens.
This season Parkman gets to provide more audiences with his manner of stealth education — and sheer musical pleasure — in the new Family Concerts series, four concerts on Sunday afternoons designed for children ages three to 12 and their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles — any and all who make up a family. Families are invited to come as they are and to be prepared to take part, to learn, to share, and to have fun.
"It is generally harder and harder for there to be quality experiences that families can share together," says Parkman. "There are things that families can do: drive in cars, shop. But these concerts will provide experiences where families can learn together, share together — and I hope these will be experiences of high quality that will make them want to return to the concert hall, and perhaps spark activities at home that are of equal substance."
Since Parkman joined the SLSO in 2003, he has increased his commitment as an advocate for the arts and arts education. The Family Concerts serve as a natural extension of those efforts, encouraging the Powell Hall experience to be one that families can build upon in their own ways. "I hope families can experience the pleasure of learning together," he says, "and enjoying learning something new. We might inspire family projects, with these concerts becoming dinner-table discussions or making everyone want to learn more and head to the Internet. God bless Google."
Each of the four concerts focuses on a central theme. The first Sunday concert (October 22) explores the storytelling aspects of music, with Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Symphony No. 1. On December 10, Parkman and the SLSO take a voyage to The Planets via Holst's popular work. The use of opposites in music — long and short, loud and soft, high and low — are discussed on February 4, in a program that includes Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 (a system of opposites that everyone recognizes from the very start: short-short-short-long). "Moods and Emotions" is the theme for the Family Concert on March 11, with excerpts from Elgar's "Enigma" Variations and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 providing the examples.
Although the series can be enjoyed as a continuum, Parkman encourages families to join in at any time. "I'll be sure that you can come in the middle of the series and not feel lost," he says. "These are all subjects that stand on their own. Also, there's just the joy of hearing these works live."
Along with the joy of listening comes the joy of participation for Family Concerts audiences. "A lot of things I'm going to do will give tools," says Parkman. "I'll ask 'What are you listening to?' We'll clap rhythms. We'll recognize patterns in the music. There will be melodies that we will sing. I will ask you to raise your hands when you hear a particular motive."
Parkman recognizes that music education events — in the public schools or on TV in the case of Leonard Bernstein's legendary Young People's Concerts — might be considered throwbacks to a nostalgic past, yet these are the types of experiences that present generations, whether children or adults, are hungry for. In his advocacy role, Parkman understands that a little bit of learning can go a long way toward increasing the public's interest and enjoyment of orchestral music. "It's been a good generation or two since public-school music programs either became lacking or non-existent," Parkman observes. "So parents can learn some things, too. I would hope that coming to concerts with an understanding of basic themes would increase one's awareness, pleasure, and excitement. With greater understanding the enjoyment level of the music increases greatly. Otherwise, the communicative experience cannot function. The audience needs to understand what the orchestra is saying."
Parkman wants these concerts to be open, interactive, and joyous affairs, where a community joins together with its orchestra on Sunday afternoons. "I'm really hopeful that people are comfortable to come as they are," he says. "I want the atmosphere to be open. We can still talk about 'serious' subjects. But everyone can come as they are with whatever information they do or don't have. I'm hoping to create our own Family Concert community. Families get to know the orchestra and get to know each other, and we in the orchestra can get to know the audience."
Family Concerts will be held at Powell Symphony Hall, Sundays at 3 p.m., on October 22, December 10, February 4, and March 11. Call 314-534-1700 or visit slso.org for tickets.
Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.