When students from around the city come to David Geffen Hall to hear the New York Philharmonic, January 25–27, they’ll see an unusual object on stage: a plant. More than just a visual element and reference to nature, it will act as a musical instrument in Angélica Negrón’s For Those..., which the NY Phil commissioned for these Young People’s Concerts (YPCs) for Schools. These events are not only performances crafted for children by a world-class ensemble. They reflect the rewards of the Orchestra’s community partnerships, which can be experienced at Lincoln Center and in neighborhoods all around New York City.
Some collaborations are longstanding, like those shared with the 10 Philharmonic Schools, whose students will attend these concerts, and NY Phil Teaching Artists, who work with classroom teachers to develop curricula. Similarly, the Very Young Composers Program (VYC), the after school initiative that empowers children to create their own musical works, has been serving New York City kids for more than 25 years (and has expanded around the world). This season there’s also a brand-new form of cooperation: Community Partners-in-Residence.
Brooklyn-based El Puente is the Community Partner-in-Residence involved in this month’s YPCs for Schools, which reflect that group’s focus on environmental justice. This fall Angélica Negrón (who has longstanding ties with both the NY Phil and El Puente as a Teaching Artist) observed the creation of a mural celebrating the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) through Los Muralistas, El Puente’s intergenerational artist collective. This mural plays a role in Negrón’s For Those ... (a title taken from El Puente students’ work), which combines the instruments of the orchestra with the on-stage plant (through a MIDI box that translates its electrical impulses into rhythms and pitches) and samplings of the sounds of the mural being made (crumpling paper, sharpening pencils, paintbrushes being rinsed).
Negrón has given a lot of thought to how arts can connect with themes of environmental justice and activism. She says, “When you create things that are centered on what you feel really passionate about, that will resonate with others from a place of empathy.” She hopes that synergy can both build awareness and inspire people to take action.
It certainly inspired the YPCs for Schools program itself, which also includes Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea); Chaos from Rebel’s The Elements; Xinjiang Province, 2112, from Mason Bates’s Alternative Energy; and works by VYCs from Brooklyn’s PS 11, a longtime Philharmonic partner. Each year about a dozen third, fourth, and fifth graders from the school participate in VYC, working with NY Phil Teaching Artists and PS 11’s music teacher. “Creating anything is a powerful tool,” Rasheda Rand, the assistant principal, believes. “To start with an idea, nurture that idea, edit, and revise it helps the students feel empowered and accomplished, and it is most evident when their composed work is played on the stage and their grade-mates are listening to it.” Their pride is visible, if only with a shy smile, she notes. “It has really had a lasting legacy with the students who have participated.”
Negrón explains that the combined sense of loss and joy — a duality present in the Day of the Dead and the mural celebrating it — is global. “We have been connecting that a lot to action and what we can make to change things. As Los Muralistas is a group of artists driven by social justice issues, we talked a lot about the role of arts in society and ask, can this really create a change? What do they hope people who see their artwork can take away? That’s been really inspiring.”
Frances Lucerna, El Puente’s co-founder and president, agrees. “What happens out of that is something really powerful, in terms of Angélica’s work with the Philharmonic,” she says. “We can create a context relevant to the issues that affect all of us globally, and specifically to the people that are most affected by it, particularly here in New York City.”
These partnerships are bigger than a single work, or a single concert. The friendship between the Orchestra and El Puente began during the height of the pandemic through NY Phil Bandwagon — pop-up concerts across the city given when indoor concerts were prohibited — which evolved into multiday festivals that featured Philharmonic musicians and community artists, including one hosted by El Puente in Williamsburg. Lucerna explains that a goal of the collaboration is to “build opportunities to work together as artists that are focused on issues of social justice and human rights, that then also can become venues for deeper dialogue as well as, we hope, a call to action.”
Those interested in this citywide cross-pollination of ideas and influences can experience the same program that Philharmonic Schools students will hear when it is repeated on the Young People’s Concert on January 28. And, yes, the plant will be on stage, making music, too.
Music journalist and media consultant Gail Wein is a contributor to NPR and Voice of America and has written for The Washington Post, Musical America, and Symphony Magazine.