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Each year, the Philharmonia of Greensboro performs its “Pillow Pops” concert, a program designed to introduce children to classical music in a comfortable atmosphere. Forsaking the dark concert hall and formal attire, “Pillow Pops” takes place in the gymnasium of the Lindley Recreation Center, where kids are encouraged to wear pajamas and to sit on blankets spread across the floor. The atmosphere is indeed warm and comfortable. But can music designed to satisfy the sophisticated tastes of 18th and 19th century adults really appeal to contemporary children?
The organizers of “Pillow Pops” say yes.
Maestro Peter Perret, along with Greensboro's City Arts Dance Project school director Lauren Trollinger, put together a program full of charm and variety. Their strategy was to select repertoire carefully, introduce each piece with a short and engaging explanation, make tasteful cuts to the music where necessary, and, in the centerpiece, include narration and dance.
Opening the program was the world premiere of “March of the Arthropods,” a piece composed by the Philharmonia's own principal trumpeter Sumner Spratner. “March” is a colorful and well-orchestrated tone poem depicting insects, crustaceans, arachnids, and other members of the phylum arthropoda. Containing echoes of film great John Williams and the Russian Romantic composers (one of whom appeared later in the program), “March” immediately engaged children and adults alike, and the audience gave the piece thunderous applause.
Next, twelve-year old violinist Jayon Felizarta joined the orchestra for the first movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 in G. Though having played for only five years, Felizarta dashed off Mozart's virtuosic music — from memory — with the poise and confidence of a professional. Felizarta's beautiful and accomplished playing garnered a standing ovation from the thrilled audience.
Occupying the majority of the program was a choreographed version of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's popular symphonic tone poem Scheherazade from 1888. Joining Perret and the orchestra were dance students from the School at City Arts, performing choreography by school director Lauren Trollinger. Before each movement, Trollinger excited the audience's imagination with a short, atmospheric description of the scene to be played out. The dancers, decked out in colorful costumes, performed a narrative interpretation of each movement while the orchestra accompanied.
Each of the first three movements featured a different ensemble of dancers, ranging in age from elementary school children to adults. In the last movement, the entire company of dancers joined together for a rousing finale.
A complete performance of Scheherazade normally lasts around 45 minutes. Unfortunately, a performance of this length would have placed great physical demands on the student dancers and would have been generally less accessible to the young audience; Director Trollinger and Maestro Perret were necessarily compelled to make some cuts to the score. While the audience missed out on portions of Rimsky-Korsakov's terrific music, the majority of the cuts were tasteful and preserved the essential spirit of each movement. All in all, this version of Scheherazade dazzled those in attendance.
Classical music outreach efforts, even those with the best of intentions, always carry overtones of gentrification: to assert the necessity of esoteric “high” culture is to question the validity of popular culture. And yet without outreach efforts, expensive music requiring expensive instruments and years of expensive lessons will always remain the sole property of the wealthy and powerful, out of the reach of any others who might want to pursue it. Maestro Perret, Director Trollinger, and City Arts have mitigated at least some of these problems with “Pillow Pops.” By making the concert free, kid-friendly, and in an accessible community location, and by allowing non-professional community members to participate, City Arts is helping to serve a community's cultural needs without erasing its identity.