Introducing Virtual Concerts for Schools

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2020.21 Season, Concerts for Schools

Since students can’t come to the Bradley Symphony Center for educational concerts this year, the symphony will go to them.

The Milwaukee Symphony’s education concerts, which attracted more than 22,000 children in person in previous years, may reach the same size audience or greater in 2021 thanks to online videos.

But in addition to the obvious obstacles posed by a pandemic, education director Rebecca Whitney had to solve other problems in order to produce new programming. The new concert hall was not available at all until two months ago, and the current rehearsal protocols for the Saturday night subscription concerts do not allow time for separate educational pieces. “But music education is crucial to our mission,” Whitney said, “and we decided we’re going to work with it and make it happen.”

The solution was to use video from concerts recorded during the symphony’s first month back, interspersed with a narrative that incorporates the new concert hall and its history as an opulent movie palace. Resident conductor Yaniv Dinur, on the premise of looking for the “Bradley Symphony Center Specter,” hunts through the building, finds musicians from each major family of instruments, talks to them, and introduces videos featuring strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.

“It’s not just ‘here are clips of the orchestra,’” Whitney said. “It’s an opportunity to have a little fun and show off the building to our students.”

“It was practically my first time in the new hall, and it was an amazing experience,” Dinur said a few days after the taping. “I want to live there now. There are so many spaces to explore.”

Dinur, who normally conducts all of the MSO’s educational concerts, said, “Each one is a little different, depending on the energy of the audience. There’s banter back and forth sometimes. That’s something we can’t have this year, but we did have some banter with the musicians.”

The concerts are separate from the year-long Arts in Community Education program, which created a series of videos for use at each grade level this season. (Dinur filmed one on piano in his house, assisted by his 2-year-old daughter.) But, Whitney said, “We see a desire, almost a hunger, for this kind of programming. We knew there would be an appetite for this.”

Two days after the MSO sent out the email to teachers informing them that the video concert would be available, they had heard back from 100 schools representing 20,000 students. “We’re a bit overwhelmed,” Whitney said. “There are many names and schools we recognize, and a lot of new ones. We’re getting responses from Rhinelander, Wausau, La Crosse, Oshkosh” – all far enough away that driving to a concert in downtown Milwaukee would be difficult or impossible.

In normal times, schools pay for their students to attend an in-person concert, but this year’s video will be free. “It does open up questions about what we will do in the future,” Whitney said. “But the philosophy this year is to make it accessible and user-friendly and available.” Teachers who want to use the video in their classes can contact the MSO’s education department to register for access to the stream.

The symphony plans to release another educational video in May, on the theme of “Beyond Words: Harmony and Healing.” The pandemic has sparked a lot of emotions, and “we know music stirs emotions in us and makes us feel different things,” Dinur said. “But we will explore why – why certain harmonies make us feel certain ways.”