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‘Concerts for Fifth Graders’ look to inspire next generation concert music patrons

‘Concerts for Fifth Graders’ look to inspire next generation concert music patrons


Thirty years ago, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County formed a partnership with a youth orchestra it felt could effectively introduce school kids to the world of orchestral music.

Several decades later, “Concerts for Fifth Graders” continues to flourish, serving nearly 15,000 students annually in four pairs of concerts at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

Led by conductor Daniel Alfred Wachs and the Orange County Youth Symphony Orchestra, this year’s series of concerts features music from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”

“We just want to be able to give the kids a fundamental foundation of orchestral music and it’s important to expose them to this style of music early,” said Wachs. “The kids absolutely love it. They enjoy the experience of being in a real concert hall and dressing up. It gives them a sense of occasion. Plus, they are hearing it live which is terrific and truly invaluable.”

The kids are not only introduced to orchestral music, but a bit of ballet as well, with appearances by several dancers from Anaheim Ballet during a few of the pieces.

However, while the students are certainly entertained, the most important goal of the concerts is to educate. Before playing selections from “The Nutcracker,” OCYSO members introduce the instrumental families of the orchestra to the audience by performing brief excerpts from musical works the students can relate to. Two of those pieces this year are the iconic themes from “Star Wars” and “Jaws.”

Each concert runs for about 45 minutes and is narrated by John-David Keller, a founding member of South Coast Repertory. The purpose of the narrator is to deliver information about the orchestra and music to the audience in an engaging manner.

Typically, Keller portrays a different character each year. Prior characters have ranged from famous composers and characters from literature to authors and historical figures. This year, Keller narrates as Grandfather Stahlbaum, a character from “The Nutcracker.”

“The Philharmonic originally approached (South Coast Repertory) years ago and asked if any of us were interested and part of my background is music so I leapt to the chance. I absolutely love doing it,” Keller said. “The kids are looking at children who aren’t much older than they are. Of course we’re never going to please them all, but if we can get a portion of the 1,800 seats out there to say ‘Gee, that was cool, I’d like to know how you did that.’ then we’ve won.”

While the music performed by OCYSO is often classical, it isn’t necessarily always the case. In years past, the youth orchestra has also played the music of John Williams and Disney tunes as well.

Besides introducing the fifth graders to a certain style of music they aren’t familiar with, another key aspect of the show is having kids step inside the hall and feel welcome.

“It’s very different being in the hall than simply hearing the music in a classroom. We don’t want them to think of it as a standoffish place for rich old people,” said Rita Major, director of education at the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. “It’s a place where everybody can come and enjoy a concert.”

The Philharmonic Society is currently in its 60th year of offering a number of different youth programs for kids as young as kindergarten and old as high school.

For Julia Wang, who joined OCYSO this season as a violinist, being able to see the reactions of the kids in the crowd to the music has been one of her favorite aspects of performing for the fifth graders.

“The lights aren’t that bright so you can definitely notice moments when they recognize a tune or enjoy a particular piece,” Wang said. “A lot of these students have never been to a concert before so the exposure is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them.”

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