Stokowski's lesson: Develop local talent

One more lesson Yannick can learn from Stokowski

Mary Curtis Bok saw the need to train the next generation. (Artist: Norman Rockwell.)
Mary Curtis Bok saw the need to train the next generation. (Artist: Norman Rockwell.)

As a music educator, I'm encouraged that the Philadelphia Orchestra has just celebrated the 100th anniversary of Stokowski's ascendancy to its podium. The Orchestra's new conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, deserves special praise for reviving Stokowski's "Audience Choice Selections" concert.

This type of end-of-season programming could be viewed historically as a type of final self-examination for both the audience and music director as to which musical selections worked best during the season. It would reveal what new programming presented during the season helped the audience to grow musically. And it helped the audience to gain a sense of ownership of the Orchestra.

Now that those "Audience Choice" concerts are over, it's important to learn from Stokowski's efforts to protect the future of his orchestra. He did this by focusing on mentoring and educating very talented local youth. In the process, he began to develop the necessary high-quality talent pool from which to draw qualified new personnel for the orchestra throughout the rest of the 20th Century.

Stokowski's successor, Eugene Ormandy, saw to it that this process would be broadened beyond Curtis. Thus the Orchestra evolved from depending solely on European immigrant musicians to developing a sense of ownership among Philadelphia youths, their families and the community at large.

Birth of Curtis

Stokowski knew that Mary Louise Curtis Bok, the Curtis Publishing heiress, had worked with culturally and financially deprived students at the Settlement Music School. When it became obvious that many of these students were sufficiently gifted to be prepared for professional careers, she perceived the need for a conservatory with rigorous standards to train the next generation of musical professionals. With guidance from Stokowski and the great pianist Joseph Hofmann, she endowed the Curtis Institute of Music in 1924.

At the school's very beginning, Stokowski joined the Curtis faculty as director of orchestra training and orchestra conducting. In effect, he held two podiums: one at the Academy of Music and the other at Curtis. As part of his staff at Curtis he incorporated his first chairs from the Philadelphia Orchestra, among them such superstars as William M. Kincaid for flute and Marcel Tabuteau for oboe.

Stokowski's assistant conductor, Artur Rodzinsky, was similarly pressed into multiple service as conductor for the Philadelphia Grand Opera as well as directing in in the opera and orchestra departments at Curtis from 1925 to 1929.

During the Depression years of the early 1930s Stokowski made it a practice to employ Curtis Institute students as singers with the Orchestra. On March 8, 1931, Stokowski conducted more than two dozen Curtis students, the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company and members of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the American premiere of Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck.

Leveraged mentoring

Thus Stokowski, an immigrant from Europe, focused his attention on developing future Orchestra musicians from Philadelphia's native population.

Stokowski and Ormandy both knew that if they became mentors and educators at Curtis and then sent Philadelphia Orchestra men to join faculties of other leading Philadelphia conservatories, they could broaden their talent base even more for what became an 100-member orchestra. Also, through concerts designed especially for elementary- and secondary-aged public and private school students, they began to educate and entice thousands to become future audiences as adults.

In the summer of 1930, when the city could no longer support concerts at Robin Hood Dell in Fairmount Park, the Philadelphia Orchestra's musicians and their backers took over the concert series. They saw an employment, marketing and education opportunity. Because they kept ticket prices low, 12,000 people came out for the inaugural concert on July 8, 1930. Stokowski and his assistant, Alexander Smallens, were the conductors for that first summer season.

Shame of West Philly High

More and more American symphony orchestras are making education a priority because public schools now are dropping music programs on all levels day by day. Only 15% of elementary schools nationwide offer music instruction at least three times a week. Six percent offer no specific music instruction at all. Nine percent offer no music experiences whatsoever. West Philadelphia High School, alma mater of Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster Anshel Bruslow (who studied at Curtis as a child prodigy and with Zechwer Hahn as a teenager) and other Philadelphia Orchestra musicians, offers no music today.

Today two major symphony orchestras carry on the Stokowski music education spirit with outstanding success. Just as Stokowski and Ormandy insured the 20th century future of their orchestra, by taking the reins of music education K-12 in their communities today, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra have written their own insurances and futures for the emtire 21st century.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra replicated the Stokowki-Ormandy approach to music education, down to Tanglewood, which was inspired by Philadelphia's Robin Hood Dell. To fill the void created by the decline of public school music education, the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra program has become three symphonic orchestras, a string training orchestra, a preparatory wind ensemble, four chamber orchestras, a chamber music program, and a nationally recognized string training program for underrepresented youth from inner-city communities in New England.

Some 20% of American symphony orchestra members, as well as 30% of all first-chair players, have attended the Boston Symphony's highly selective music education program at Tanglewood Music Center. It's said that roughly half of the members of the New York Symphony Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra have had the Tanglewood experience. What's more, Tanglewood has been very successful financially, even during these hard economic times. Its diverse Labor Day Weekend series last year was described as a "cash cow."

Dudamel jumps in

At the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel, a Venezuelan, took the podium in 2009. He launched a music education program right away, based on the one from his native country called El Sistema. His Youth Orchestra Los Angeles program, located in South L.A., has grown to include three orchestras, a pre-school program, mentorship, group lessons, chamber music and parent ensembles. Its students perform annually at Walt Disney Concert Hall and have appeared often on the iconic stage of the Hollywood Bowl.

Of course Yannick Nézet-Séguin must be his own man when it comes to leading his orchestra. But would it hurt him to heed the voices of Stokowski and Ormandy when they whisper in his ear— at least in terms of developing musical talent and audiences?♦


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