Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra strikes a chord with American youth

A Milken School student plays along with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra in Los Angeles. (Howard Pasamanick Photography)Israel’s cultural ambassador, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, added a new tune to its repertoire on its most recent U.S. tour when, for the first …

A Milken School student plays along with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra in Los Angeles. (Howard Pasamanick Photography)Israel’s cultural ambassador, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, added a new tune to its repertoire on its most recent U.S. tour when, for the first time, it held events for American children based on its Israeli educational programs.

In New York, eighty parents and children braved a blizzard to attend Family Music Day at Carnegie Hall, while three days earlier in Los Angeles, hundreds of students at the Milken Community High School attended a uniquely crafted concert and discussion. The performances on both coasts were adapted from the IPO’s KeyNote scholastic program.

KeyNote’s range of programs in Israel, recently expanded to cover kindergarten through high school, has been bringing classical music into Jewish, Arab-Israeli, religious, and secular schools since its roll-out in 2000. In addition, KeyNote has assembled an Arab-Israeli Ensemble that works towards fostering coexistence between these polarized groups.

Family Music Day was held in Carnegie Hall’s renowned Weill Recital Hall, where children and parents were treated to an innovative, interactive concert by the eight-piece KeyNote Brass Ensemble.

“This is the first time the Orchestra has played a family concert in the United States using the methods we have learned from our KeyNote program in Israel,” said Peter Marck, the IPO’s moderator for the event, adding that as a member of the Orchestra’s management, he had led the push to incorporate KeyNote-inspired programs into this U.S. tour.

The hour-long concert featured an eclectic selection of songs from nine different composers, ranging from Bach to Brahms to Leroy Anderson, each piece chosen to emphasize different brass instruments and arrangements. Between songs, in a sort of show and tell, the musicians introduced themselves and the instruments they played. They demonstrated each device, highlighting the qualities and limitations, and shed light on its history.

Throughout the hall, the kids responded; at times whispering questions into their parents’ ears, laughing at the musicians’ jokes and the occasional musical antics that were worked into the program, and swaying in their seats to the livelier melodies.

At the conclusion of the concert, the children were invited to meet the musicians close-up, ask them questions and even hold and try to play the instruments.

The format of the concert drew raves from parents, kids and the performers themselves. Neil Portnoy attended Family Music Day with his wife, Sharon and his son, Reid. “I liked that the musicians spoke to us. They personalized it. They were real people,” Neil said. “You know, a lot of times you just have the music, and you feel removed from it. But this was very intimate.”

Aliza Siegel and her husband, Steven, brought their two daughters, aged two and four. “My oldest didn’t want to come at first. She thought it would be a typical concert where you have to sit quietly for a long time, with no interaction,” Aliza said, “Now she’s told me she’s glad we came.”

Kristen Rachlin, a 12-year-old who plays the clarinet, said she identified with the performers as fellow musicians. “It was funny when the trombone came apart in [IPO trombonist Micha Davis's] hands as he was playing,” she said, recalling a moment when Davis demonstrated what happens when you push the instrument’s slide too far. “Once, I didn’t connect my clarinet correctly when I was playing and the whole thing started falling apart,” she laughed.

Davis marveled at how the children here responded in the same enthusiastic way that children back home did when he performed for them.

“Playing for Israeli children or American children, it’s the same.” Davis said. “They enjoy the same musical jokes, and they know the same tunes that we know.”

After the concert, the families were invited to a brunch, and the children were treated to face painting, arts and crafts and balloon art. Proceeds from the event went to the KeyNote program in Israel.

As Family Music Day drew to a close, the KeyNote Brass players reflected on the concert they had performed several days earlier, not in a hallowed recital hall but a Los Angeles school auditorium.

“We really made an impression on [the Milken School students], and they really made an impression on us,” said Michael Slatkin, a french horn player in KeyNote Brass.

In that concert, 45 members of the school’s chamber ensemble and choir were actually given the opportunity to play music alongside the IPO’s musicians, another first. Speaking to ISRAEL21c later by phone, a student and a teacher both spoke enthusiastically about their KeyNote encounter.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Elizabeth Erenberg, 17, a senior at the school and a flutist in the chamber ensemble. The students had been eagerly anticipating the concert since they were told of it in September.

“It was unreal. The night before, we had gone to hear the Israel Philharmonic perform at their [regional] concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall [at the Hollywood Bowl] and then, the very next morning, we were playing with some of them!” she said.

“When the music began, it was scary at first, because we never had the chance to practice together with them before the concert. But then it sounded really good!”

Russell Steinberg, Director of Music at the Milken School, said that the KeyNote Brass players were very sensitive, taking care not to overwhelm the students with their advanced abilities, while the motivated young musicians “took their music to a new level.”

Back in New York, the KeyNote musicians concurred. “When their players and our players sat together and performed the Star Spangled Banner and Hatikva, it was really a special moment,” Marck said.

Marck said the most rewarding part of the Los Angeles program was seeing how the students related to the IPO visitors as Israelis.

“They were impressed when afterwards we took out pictures of our children, close in age to them and they saw that people in Israel were just like them,” Marck said.

Slatkin echoed the sentiments of the entire ensemble when he expressed a desire to build upon what the IPO had started on this tour.

“I think we should do [KeyNote concerts] every time we come to America but in even more schools.” he said emphatically.

Slatkin’s wish may come true. Leslie S. Arlein of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra said after the New York concert that discussions were already underway about scheduling more KeyNote programs into the IPO’s next U.S. concert tour, which is to take place in March.

Looking further ahead, Marck said that his ultimate goal was to have the IPO offer KeyNote events in all the communities visited by the Orchestra, worldwide.