All for the Family

How the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has created a destination for families

By Stefene Russell

You might remember the first time you heard Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, a piece that imbued symphony instruments with an almost animistic power by associating them with cats, ducks, and wolves. For generations families have been introducing their children to the excitement and thrill of live orchestral music. Today, families have a lot more to choose from at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The four family concerts (up from three in 2016) are precisely engineered to appeal to the entire family, even those tiny humans with growing brains, squirmy bodies, and roving attention spans.

“A family concert rarely exceeds 50 minutes,” said Jessica Ingraham, the SLSO’s Director of Education. “When we’re creating the concerts, we look at pacing, taking into consideration the length of the musical selections, amount of talking and the frequency in which the audience is participating…there’s a lot of thought that goes into them to make sure everyone stays engaged.” She added that the SLSO works hard to design concerts that will appeal to a wide spectrum of listeners—and tickets start at $8, making it feasible for an entire family to attend.

“It’s for all ages, from the youngest sibling to the favorite grandparent,” said Resident Conductor Gemma New, who conducts all but the first Family Concert. “In each program, we all explore together a popular story or a theme through music. I hope every child and adult who enters Powell Hall for these concerts will become thoroughly imaginative, joyful, and evermore curious about music.”

This month, for Athletes of the Orchestra (October 15), the SLSO partners with the St. Louis Blues. Louie the Bear will be on hand to help the audience play a game introducing the instrument families in the orchestra. “Each selection on the program highlights a different musical family,” Ingraham said. “Ravel’s Brigadoon highlights the woodwind family; Johann Strauss’ Thunder and Lightning Polka highlights the percussion family. So, we’ll give them clues—for instance, what family has the most number of instruments but least number of players? And they’ll guess, along with Louie. When they get the answer correct, we’ll play a piece of music highlighting that instrument family.” The program, which also includes Olympic Fanfare and Theme, Casey at the Bat, and The St. Louis Blues March, explores the importance of collaboration in an orchestra, just like athletes on a sports team.

Speaking of Prokofiev—the composer is the starting point for Rapped & Remixed (January 28). But the concert features The 442s and students from the SLSO’s IN
UNISON resident artist Brian Owens’ organization, Compositions For L.I.F.E. “The 442s have taken inspiration from Romeo and Juliet and created a contemporary, 442sstyle piece,” Ingraham explained. The Compositions For L.I.F.E. students are reworking themes from the story to pair with the restyled music. “There may be elements of rap, but it could also be singing, or it could be spoken word,” Ingraham said, adding that the artists were still in the process of developing the
work at press time. “The 442s will be in residence with Compositions For L.I.F.E., working with the students to create the piece. It’ll be a premiere of a new work created by students and musicians living in St. Louis for St. Louis.”

Contemporary composer and educator Michael Gandolfi’s 2001 symphony Pinocchio’s Adventures in Funland (March 18), is a new twist on the Peter and the Wolf model. It’s a fairytale story paired with orchestral music that encourages children’s imaginations to soar. “It has a narrator, who tells the classic story of Pinocchio,” Ingraham said. “And the music is just really good. It has a movie flair to it, and it takes you through all of Pinocchio’s emotions as he embarks on his quest to become a real boy. Its basic mission is to spark the imagination.” That program includes some other fun additions, including the overture to Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

The final family concert of the season is The World of Make-Believe (April 22). While there are lots of cinematic tributes this season—including the Harry Potter scores and a tribute to John Williams—this program is a bit different. It incorporates some John Williams, as well as some music from The Incredibles, but you’ll also hear Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Waltz and Ravel’s Beauty and the Beast. “Most people think of movies when they hear those,” said Ingraham. “They have a cinematic quality. You’ll have a juxtaposition of the old and the new, but the thought is to present music that was written to paint a picture, whether it’s accompanying a motion picture or a story, even though you don’t hear the story or see the movie. It’s just an invitation to let your imagination run wild with some really exciting music.”


And if you want to get your child really excited about orchestral music, arrive early. “We do instrument playgrounds an hour before the concert,” Ingraham said. “There are stations in different parts of the foyer where children can play a trumpet, or play a clarinet, or play a violin, with volunteers available to help them. We hope by having the instrument playground available in addition to the concert experience, that children will get excited about their future involvement in orchestral music—that they, too, can play an instrument, whether it be through private lessons or in their school music program. And then maybe one day sitting on stage with the symphony.”

Stefene Russell
is St. Louis Magazine’s Culture Editor.