Creating the Orange County Performing Arts Center was one challenge. Assuring that the center will attract audiences 10, 20, even 50 years from now will be another.
As Executive Director Thomas R. Kendrick tells it: “The performing arts are an endangered species.
“Costs are rising and audiences are dwindling. Kids today have been trained on the rapid action of TV cartoons or dramas, so they’re unprepared for the (classical music) art form and likely to be bored by what they consider strange. It’s absolutely critical to build your future audience.”
And presenting concerts aimed specifically at children, Kendrick says, is one way to build for tomorrow.
Adopting that philosophy, the center will present the Pacific Symphony in three Saturday concerts for children: Nov. 29 and--next year--March 21 and May 2. With Keith Clark conducting, performances will focus on a mix of classical music and lighter entertainment. Children’s television host Mister Rogers and Muppet figure Big Bird also may put in an appearance.
The South Coast Repertory Theatre also is expected to present performances for children at the center’s 250-seat rehearsal theater.
Inevitably, when Clark and Kendrick discuss programs for children, the name of Leonard Bernstein arises. It was, after all, Bernstein who for many years led concerts in the granddaddy--and role model--series of them all: the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts, started in 1924 by conductor Ernest Schelling and still going strong.
Schelling established the prototype of the form, giving lively explanatory talks that were frequently illustrated by projected slides of composers (where they lived and how), or of instruments (their evolution and history). His intent was to stimulate the children’s imaginations by painting historical or allegorical pictures, and to hold their attention. The children kept program notebooks (which they submitted to a competition), voted on future programs and even answered sophisticated questions such as: “Write the difference in classicism and classical style between a Beethoven overture and Prokofiev’s ‘Classical Symphony.’ ”
Schelling’s philosophy was to challenge as well as to entertain the children. “We cater entirely too much to the cheaper side of a child’s nature,” he said in a 1935 interview on radio station KHJ. “Let us give children a chance; their instinct usually tells them the good from the bad.
“Nine times out of 10 if left to himself he will turn to the thing of beauty.”
In our time, Bernstein is probably the best-known conductor of young people’s concerts, although Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski and Michael Tilson Thomas have also conducted such programs.
Bernstein’s Emmy Award-winning series of children’s concerts was televised nationally from 1958 until 1971 and was widely known for the conductor’s ability to present enthusiastic, perceptive analyses of serious music without talking down to children. He illuminated such complex works as Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration” and the finale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, for instance, by showing how both composers transformed a common four-note sequence (A--D--F-sharp--B, or “My Dog Has Fleas”) into grand musical statements.
Similarly, Michael Tilson Thomas, who conducted these programs from 1971 to 1977, featured music by such composers as Rossini, Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.
Other versions of children’s concerts have been criticized for focusing less on serious music, however, and offering youngsters an endless diet of fare such as “Tubby the Tuba,” “Carnival of the Animals,” “Star Wars” and “Peter and the Wolf.”
“That’s a legitimate criticism,” Kendrick says. “But if the preparation is given, there’s no reason not to play serious music.”
Clark says he patterns his concerts for children after the Bernstein model but expresses some misgivings that simple performances may not go far enough. He believes that “merely attending a youth concert” cannot replace the “hands-on music experience of playing in a band or singing in a choir.
“I look back to having had an instrument put in my hands in the third grade in public school and playing in the school band from third grade on, and it made all the difference,” Clark says.
“But if the only contact kids have with classical music is to get out of a math class once a year to hear some music, then I question the value of the concert.”
Clark is committed to bringing classical music to children and sees a real need in the community. “Now there is less (classroom education) in schools and so fewer opportunities for that hands-on, high-level early training, other than for those whose parents have the money or the interest in getting private teachers. There are needs out there that we serve.”
Kendrick, concurring that community-outreach programs are essential in building audiences of the future, says the center will work “in cooperation with local groups that already have well-developed programs.” He cites:
The Orange County Philharmonic Society, which, according to Executive Director Erich Vollmer, reaches 300,000 students a year through its 10 youth programs.
The Pacific Symphony, which will continue to offer in-school and family matinee programs.
Opera Pacific, which, according to company administrator Lori Green, plans to continue offering Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Telephone” and the musical “Under One Roof " in Orange County elementary and secondary schools.
South Coast Repertory, whose 13-year-old educational touring shows reach 73,000 Southland elementary and high school students a year and which maintains a three-year training program for 8- through 17-year-olds.
The Washington-based Kennedy Center, which last March presented its Imagination Program, a celebration of performing and visual arts, outside the Orange County center.
“We’ve already agreed with the education center (at Kennedy) that we will do it again, probably next May,” Kendrick says.
“In fact, we hope to make our space in the center available to all of these groups as much as we can at as little cost as we can.
“Certainly education isn’t a frill; but it’s a question of resources. Our endowment won’t come into play for five years or more, and so until then we will have to proceed very slowly on that front.”