Learn about music via Stravinsky’s ‘The Firebird’

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SUMMIT, NJ — Long before social distancing guidelines were put into effect, when people could still leave their homes to go to a concert, George Marriner Maull directed Summit’s Discovery Orchestra in “Discover ‘The Firebird,’” one of the orchestra’s interactive performances. The concert, which took place in September, was filmed; it will air on NJTV on April 29 before being distributed in May by American Public Television to stations across the country.

“We play music and then interact with the audience,” Maull said in a phone interview on April 17. “Often many people don’t know if they’re listening or not. There’s background music in places like the grocery store and in the doctor’s officer, but often they don’t even hear it. We play, and then I let the audience in. It shows the difference between hearing music and listening to it.”

In September, when Maull conducted the orchestra as it played Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” he turned to the audience intermittently to point out different instruments, sounds and parts of the music. The back-and-forth between those on stage and those in the audience encouraged active listening. Often, many people at the Discovery Orchestra concerts are just being introduced to orchestral music.

“We do find that upwards of 50 percent of them are fairly new to classical music,” Virginia Johnston, a Maplewood resident and producer of the concerts, said in a phone interview on April 17. “Others range from ‘I go to the New Jersey Symphony all the time’ to ‘I listen to it while I’m working.’ Even the people who are familiar say it helps them realize something new.”

Both Johnston and Maull have found that many audience members aren’t as enthusiastic about wordless music as they are about pop or rock, even though it can be just as exciting.

“People are quite accustomed to tuning out this music,” Maull said. “Often in the audience they’re looking at their phones or reading the program notes. They’re not giving it the same attention. With wordless music, even though there are no words, the composer is telling us all kinds of things. If you tune out, what comes later won’t make sense.”

Johnston likened it to watching a play.

“If you’re at a play and zone out for 10 lines of dialogue, you won’t know what’s happening,” she said. “It’s the same.”

That’s where the Discovery Orchestra’s listening guide comes in. Printed in the program for audience members at the live event and shown on-screen during the television special, the guide introduces instruments when they make an entrance, teaches musical terms and points out new musical layers in the performance.

“What’s the timbre? What are the dynamics? What are the layers?” Johnston said. “We ask people to respond physically.”

The goal is to produce an emotional reaction to the music, in a concert setting where there are fewer visuals, no words and no mosh pits allowed. If they can do that, Maull said, the audience will want to come back.

“If we can induce a person to have an emotional reaction, they’ll want to have it again,” he said. “Then they’ll start listening with undivided attention.”

For the TV special, there are more visuals. Cameras are set up throughout the orchestra so individual members can be seen playing, and edits that follow along with the listening guide can be made. For example, when Maull mentions the tuba section, the tuba players are shown. Even though television viewers weren’t in the audience at the live performance, they can still participate — from their couches — in Maull’s conversation.

“They should be able to almost feel like they were there,” Johnston said. “Everything we ask the audience to do the TV audience can do. They find out the same things at the same time.”

“Discover ‘The Firebird’” isn’t the first program of this kind the Discovery Orchestra has played. Past programs — including “Bach to the Future,” “Discover Beethoven’s Fifth” and “Discover Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’” — can be purchased or streamed on Amazon Prime Video. More information about the orchestra can be found at www.discoveryorchestra.org.

The latest installment will air on April 29 at 8 p.m. on NJTV.

“We hope they’re just as engaged,” Maull said about the TV audience. “And all indications show they have been.”

Photos Courtesy of Alimah Boyd