Setting the Stage

MET Orchestra musicians are using their music to build stronger communities

Volume 117, No. 6June, 2017

Jessica Phillips and Jason Haaheim

As part of their recent community building efforts, MET Orchestra Musicians performed at a benefit for the environmental advocacy group Our Children’s Trust at the Rudolph Steiner School. MET Orchestra percussionist Greg Zuber (left) and timpanist Jason Haaheim share the magic of live music with children. Photo credits: Walter Karling (left photo), Christopher Carroll (right photo)

The MET Orchestra Musicians, a nonprofit entity created in 2014 composed of members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, has been performing a series of free public concerts and programs as part of our new public performance initiative.

Months of preparation, hours of grant writing, countless phone calls and meetings, painstaking preparation and travel arrangements, and of course stomach-churning crisis management – to say nothing of volunteering time on much-needed days off – go into providing free performances to the public in New York City. But it took just a few “OOH-RAHs” and a “Hot damn!” from a Vietnam vet while performing Verdi’s “Overture to La Forza del Destino” to make it all worth it.

Earlier this spring, 42 members of the MET Orchestra Musicians performed two 70-minute programs of opera, American and orchestral standards for combat veterans at VA hospitals in Manhattan and Brooklyn. This was our fifth free public performance since March. Each performance has felt more impactful, more fulfilling, and more exciting than the last. Both V.A. concerts were made possible with support of the Music Performance Trust Fund.

The May 1 performance in Brooklyn and the April 24 performance in Manhattan marked high points of our year. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer joined us. Audience members were engaged, yelling their encouragement for the musicians at the musical climaxes, enraptured by soprano Susanna Phillips’s musicality at the most tender moments, and wanting to meet everyone in the orchestra afterwards.

We had similar experiences at a performance of “Peter and the Wolf” narrated by NYC Council Member Daniel Garodnick for elementary school students at the Rudolf Steiner School, where we offered our services to help fundraise for the environmental advocacy group Our Children’s Trust.

MET Orchestra violinist Katherine Fong gives a violin lesson at a special performance at the New York Public Library. Photo: Kate Glicksberg

As part of New York Public Library Week, string quartets were joined by officials from Mayor de Blasio’s office at a pre-K in Harlem, and later at the Fort Washington Public Library, we were accompanied by NYC Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who read out loud children’s stories while we played music composed by orchestra member Elena Barere’s husband, Robert Miller.

Through these public performances, audience members ranging from two years old to 90 were engaging with music in a new way, some for the first time. Our colleagues were touched by their genuine appreciation and love for live music and interactive community building.

NYC Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez reads to children with live accompaniment by MET Orchestra Musicians at the New York Public Library. Photo: Christopher Carroll

And why were we doing this? Because we are New Yorkers. We are teachers. We are parents and family members. We care about our neighborhoods and civic issues facing our society. And we know that music is our best, most important, and most effective tool for building stronger communities.

We have all experienced how live music can bring people together, lift spirits, educate and inspire, as well as play a role in creating a diverse and healthy cultural fabric. Music has a unique ability to bridge lingual, educational, economic and social divides. We know that if our beloved New York City is to be stronger, we must be civically engaged and we must share music, celebrate music, and encourage access to live music whenever and however we can.

These performances are just the beginning for us. More are being planned. The MET Orchestra Musicians know that if our art form is to thrive, we must find ways for more people to fall in love with it. We must tear down the assumptions and barriers that prevent people from experiencing opera and orchestral performances. We must proactively welcome  our fellow New Yorkers and find new ways to be relevant in their lives.

We are taking it upon ourselves to engage with people in new ways and in new places. It takes more than a Twitter feed or video screen to engage with a new audience. We must introduce New Yorkers to our orchestra and our music by taking the initiative to give back to the communities we love and the city that gives us so much in return. We must introduce ourselves to New Yorkers – and not expect it to be the other way around. By marrying music, art and performance to our communities, we will strengthen the thread that ties together our inclusive, diverse and dynamic cultural fabric.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams introduces the MET Orchestra Musicians’ recent performance honoring military veterans at the Brooklyn VA hospital. Photo: Kate Glicksberg

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer speaks to veterans at the MET Orchestra Musicians’ performance at the Manhattan VA hospital. Photo: Walter Karling

The MET Orchestra Musicians and star soprano Susanna Phillips honor military veterans at Manhattan’s VA Hospital. Photo: Christopher Carroll

NYC Council Member Dan Garodnick narrates “Peter and the Wolf” with MET Orchestra Musicians at a benefit for Our Children’s Trust at Rudolph Steiner School. Photo: Walter Karling