Students Jazzed Up About Strings Repertoire

Students warm up before one of their performances, where they’ll play more than just the Three Bs: Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms

When thinking of strings music, many people immediately think of those powerhouse composers whose music has been carried down through the centuries. But it’s definitely not all Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms at the Door County String Academy.

Certainly classical music is a large component of strings education, but one of the academy’s strengths is showing students how rich, varied and interesting strings music can be, and how important it is in today’s world. What would the Harry Potter movies be, after all, without John Williams’ famous “Hedwig’s Theme?”

Whether it is in the form of classical music being played throughout the day in the workplace via Public Radio, or making an appearance in the backdrop of a hip-hop song or TV commercial, or acting as the glue that holds a plot together in a film, string music is heard everywhere, diffused throughout every aspect of our lives. The Door County String Academy’s 2010-2011 repertoire reflects that notion.

The academy’s December concert theme was A Celtic Christmas. Irish music has long included many string instruments, the fiddle being one of them, and it may have even been used in Ireland as early as the eighth century according to A History of Irish Music by William H. Grattan Flood. Even today, people gather in pubs throughout the Emerald Isle with their fiddles and banjos for a little fellowship in music.

Kicked off by an “Irish Ensemble” playing many traditional Irish selections – such as “Lark o’ the Mornin’,” “The Star of County Down” and “The Banshee” – the concert wove together many holiday carols and classical pieces played by various ensembles of students, and the orchestra performed the lovely composition “Believe” by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard from the film The Polar Express, an animated film from 2004 about a trip to the North Pole by magical train that featured Tom Hanks’ voice talent as the enigmatic conductor.

Throughout the rest of the winter and into spring, the students of the Door County String Academy worked on pieces for their May concert which was entitled, Jazz in Springtime. This performance included many famous American pieces familiar to music lovers, young and old.

“Heart and Soul” was written in 1938 by Hoagy Charmichael, who wrote so many of what are considered American Standards, including “Stardust,” “Georgia On My Mind” and the song “The Nearness of You,” which was recorded by singer Norah Jones on her 2002 hit album, Come Away With Me.

Students from the Door County String Academy jazz up their performance with top hats, ribbons and more than just classical music.

“Summertime” was written by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin for the American folk opera Porgy and Bess, which was first performed in 1935. This opera was innovative in that it synthesized European orchestral techniques with American jazz and folk music, and was led by an all African-American classically trained cast. Although the Gershwins are best remembered for their many popular hit songs, such as “Embraceable You” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” the orchestral works have also stood the test of time, “Rhapsody In Blue” and the tone poem “An American In Paris,” among them.

One of the students’ favorites to play was “The Theme from the Pink Panther.” This piece was written by Henry Mancini, whose equally famous composition “Moon River” appeared in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s starring Audrey Hepburn. Mancini wrote hundreds of hit songs, movie scores, and TV show theme songs. One peek at his biography will amaze; in 1984 alone, four hit shows carried Mancini themes: Newhart, Hotel, Remington Steele, and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.

These three American composers were some of the most prolific and influential composers/song writers of the 20th century, and their work endures today. Finishing out the Jazz in Springtime concert, the students performed another work by an American composer of significance, Harold Arlen. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was voted as the number one song of the 20th century by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition to that famous song sung by Judy Garland as Dorothy in the 1939 production of the Wizard of Oz, Arlen composed over 500 pieces, including the music of these great American Standards: “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Stormy Weather” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.”

Barb Tessman of Sturgeon Bay regularly attends the academy’s concerts. She was particularly impressed with the eight-bar blues the students played. She said after the spring concert, “I wish that when I was young I would have had the quality of teaching and the broad exposure to so many types of music that these kids have. I might have pursued music more. I definitely think that limiting kids to only classical music while they are learning will limit their interest in continuing on with their instruments down the road. This way, they can explore what interests them and decide what they like.”

While the “Three B’s” and the many aspects of classical music are vital to strings education, other forms of music are certainly valid, and have the side benefit of being a lot of fun to play.

Door County String Academy lessons are held at Hope Church in Sturgeon Bay. For more information, please contact Tammy Hartman at 920.495.5500 or [email protected].

Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, Inc., is a coalition of non-profit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and advocate the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County.