Ideas & Issues


Orchestras around the country are looking for novel ways to turn people on to classical music: from playing in big box stores to hosting fantasy camps. Well, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra came up with another tactic. They're attracting audience members by including them in the performance. It's an initiative dubbed Orchestra You. So NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas took them up on it. She dug up her old violin, rusty skills, and joined other amateur guest players.


CORNISH: All right, Anastasia, let me get this straight. A professional orchestra said anybody who wants to come and play a concert with us, show up?

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Well, that would be awesome, but not quite how it worked out. This is a one-night experiment that they tried out as part of their community outreach efforts. And, Audie, it wasn't the main show of the night. It was after actual a real concert with the very prestigious violinist Hilary Hahn as their soloist. But yeah, it was a very casual thing. The New Jersey Symphony put out an invitation for anyone who wanted to come play a little bit of some very famous music, as we can hear, from the Bizet opera "Carmen."

CORNISH: Now, have other orchestras tried something like this?

TSIOULCAS: Well, pretty much every professional orchestra has tried some sort of outreach these days. The Detroit Symphony, for example, sent some of its musicians to a local Ikea store a few months ago to play Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" in, perhaps, a less than joyous location, right?

CORNISH: Yeah. The scent of meatballs wafting over the orchestra.

TSIOULCAS: Yeah, exactly, and cinnamon rolls and all the rest - as a, yeah, to get people to their community concerts. And back in 2010, the Baltimore Symphony and their conductor, Marin Alsop, put something together that was pretty close to the New Jersey idea. But then Baltimore took it one step further and they put together a weeklong fantasy camp for amateurs who really want to live the dream.

CORNISH: All right. So back to New Jersey, I mean, how did they deal with the different ability levels, right, of these random people showing up?

TSIOULCAS: So it wasn't quite a free-for-all. You had to have a ticket for the concert, to begin with, and the New Jersey Symphony made a couple of stipulations. You should tell them that you were coming and what instrument you played. And they made one very polite request. They said, please, please try to practice the music before you actually show up.

And I have to say, people really put their hearts and souls into it. We wound up with this incredible mix of about 75 players, everyone from real professionals from the New Jersey Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as well as a bunch of students and young professional musicians, and a whole lot of amateurs. And they ranged in age from middle school kids and high school kids to older, rustier types like me.

CORNISH: Rustier? Doesn't sound like it.


CORNISH: Anastasia, this sounds amazing. I mean, I'm trying to imagine you, like, hauling your violin out and practicing frantically. I mean, what did this actually feel like to be up on stage?

TSIOULCAS: So it was just great to get out there and play, which kind of makes me sound like a retired ball player or something.

CORNISH: It does.


TSIOULCAS: And I did a lot more faking than I would have liked. I found out about it just a few days beforehand and there was a lot of frantic, last-minute practicing and pretzling my fingers into positions they really have not been in in like 20 years. But I cannot help but think of what this one 15-year-old bassoonist I met said to me after we wrapped up and he and I were chatting. And he said, you know, when you're surrounded by dozens of people, all of you working together to make the same music, you feel just euphoric. And I think that was exactly the right way of saying how the whole evening felt, not just for those couple of minutes that we played together.

CORNISH: But in what way?

TSIOULCAS: Well, you know, I think sometimes performances can be a little bit of transactional experiences. You know, you pay your money, you expect to show up and be entertained and then you leave. And I think for performers, too, yes, they're there to be creative but they're also there to perform a job. So there's this very clear divide, normally, about who are the creators and who are the consumers. But what was really nice about this, for me, at least, was that we were just all there to enjoy music together.

CORNISH: So do you think the New Jersey symphony is game to repeat this experiment?

TSIOULCAS: Well, I definitely hope so for myself because I clearly have some more practicing to do.

CORNISH: Anastasia, thanks so much for talking with us.

TSIOULCAS: Always such a pleasure, Audie. Thanks.



CORNISH: Applause for NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas and other amateur musicians who joined the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. This is NPR.

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