Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 6, 2012

Orchestra educates while entertaining

Jan. 15 concert has sight and sound gags


TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse Symphony Orchestra's mature audience got a taste of "Composer Jim" Stephenson on the orchestra's holiday program.

Now it's the younger audience's turn.

The TSO will perform the Chicago composer's interactive composition for young audiences on its first Family Concert Series program of the season. "Compose Yourself!" begins at 3 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 15, at the City Opera House.

"It's really cool," said series conductor and TSO principal trombonist Tom Riccobono, of the humorous but challenging piece. "It's from the same composer who created 'Concerto for Cell Phone.' There's no arranger like him today."

The educational composition features 15 instruments commonly heard in an orchestra, played by TSO musicians. It teaches kids about major and minor keys, different rhythms like the waltz and the march, and about harmonies and how they're constructed, Riccobono said.

Sight and sound gags, as when the tuba and trumpet engage in a play-off for bragging rights as the highest instrument, or when brass players blow accompaniment to a flute solo using water-filled bottles, help hold kids' interest and keep the mood light.

"It's very participatory for the audience, " said Rick Jaissle, TSO librarian and operations-personnel manager. "It's not just, sit down and listen to 40 minutes of music. It's, 'What makes this sound?' 'What makes the sound come out of the violin?' The big fun is that they'll compose a piece of their own."

The concert marks a return by TSO narrator Michael Nunn, who also narrated Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals" and Tchaikovsky's "Peter and the Wolf" in previous seasons. The local actor, director and trumpet teacher has a master's degree in social work, specializing in adolescents, and especially loves working with kids on stage.

"The stuff they come up with is very original and you don't have to worry about censorship," said Nunn, whose script calls for a bit of improvisation at the end.

The Family Concert Series is fun with a serious purpose, said Riccobono, who also is instructor of low brass at Interlochen Arts Academy and conductor of the Encore Wind Symphony.

"We need to cultivate a younger audience," he said. "We need to educate kids. If you build a young audience you will have an audience in the future."

"Compose Yourself!" was commissioned by the Naples (Fla.) Philharmonic in 2002 and has been performed more than 200 times since. Stephenson, a 1986 Interlochen Arts Academy graduate who also attended Interlochen Arts Camp, spent 17 seasons as a trumpeter with the Florida orchestra.

The composer's music has been performed by almost every leading orchestra in the U.S. and by artists including mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, the Pointer Sisters, 98 Degrees and Branford Marsalis.

Kids can try out a range of instruments and participate in activities organized by Kindermusik and KidzArt before the Jan. 15 concert. The hands-on "instrument petting zoo" and other fun begin at 2:30 p.m.

Admission is free; for more information, call 947-7120.