Friday, March 23, 2012

A Young Composer Receives Some Recognition

When you go to an orchestra concert and hear music composed by guys who've been dead for a century or two, do you ever wonder where tomorrow's music might be coming from?

Well, if you attended the Harrisburg Youth Symphony Orchestra's concert back on February 14th, you heard Tara Simoncic conduct them in a beautiful new orchestral piece entitled "Oaken Sky," written last year by a young composer named Chris Rogerson.

Completing his Masters in Music at Yale this year, he is among the six recipients of Charles Ives Scholarships of $7500, which are given to composition students of great promise.

Chris Rogerson’s music has been praised for its “virtuosic exuberance” and “haunting beauty” (New York Times). Ensembles such as the New World Symphony, Buffalo Philharmonic, Grand Rapids Symphony, and the New York Youth Symphony have performed his work at venues including Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and the Library of Congress. He has won other awards and fellowships from ASCAP, the MacDowell Colony, the Aspen Music Festival, and the Presser Foundation.

His music has also been performed by the cutting-edge new music ensemble, the JACK Quartet, which played in Harrisburg with Market Square Concerts earlier this season.

Rogerson is Composer-in-Residence with Young Concert Artists.

He has attended the Curtis Institute of Music and Yale University, where he studied with Jennifer Higdon (whose "Blue Cathedral" and Percussion Concerto were performed by the Harrisburg Symphony in seasons past) as well as Aaron Jay Kernis, and Martin Bresnick.

In 2009, he composed an orchestral work inspired by the news story of a young child's death in Noble, OK, a five-year-old boy who was accidentally shot by police officers at a fishing pond. The work, which he called "Noble Pond" and which the Curtis Orchestra premiered in March of 2009, was featured in a FOX-news story which you can view here. The work later received the Jacob Druckman Prize in 2011 and was performed at the Aspen Music Festival last summer.

I'm hoping we'll be hearing a lot more of Chris Rogerson's music in the future.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Making Music with Friends

Howell, Wirth, Diaz, Marilynn Kanenson, Thomas, Pereira & Malina
Last night’s performance at Stuart & Friends may go a long way to explain the working relationship between a conductor and his orchestra.

I’ve always marveled how Stuart Malina can turn orchestral playing into chamber music playing which is a whole different mind-set for the performers: instead of following the conductor visually, the musician listens to fellow players in a smaller ensemble. It also provides a certain give-and-take in the interpretation of the piece and accepts a level of spontaneity in both the interpretation and playing that usually make a live performance more exciting than a studio recording done without a live audience.

One of the reasons (some musicians would say “excuses”) for the existence of the conductor is to create a unified interpretation, keep everybody together with a baton and cue players who may be sitting there counting 125 measures’ rest waiting to come in, next. In a group of three, four or five players, it’s easier to listen to each other (or even to hear each other) and you’re not counting such long periods of rest.

A few seasons ago, when Stuart played the Mendelssohn G Minor Piano Concerto and conducted from the piano, it was like he was playing a piano quintet but with the whole orchestra (granted, a smaller orchestra than might be used for Mahler or Strauss) as an extension of the chamber ensemble. Given the fact a pianist’s hands are often busy, orchestra players were given more responsibility and found other ways to interact if the conductor’s baton was not always there.

In the old days, it wasn’t unusual for conductors to also be performers and very often the conductor might be involved as an accompanist for a guest singer in a set of songs or play a movement of a chamber piece with members of the orchestra.

These days, schedules and career specializing being what they’ve become in almost every field – think the family doctor versus the oncologist – few conductors have the time and ability to maintain both areas. It takes more than just talent and discipline.

Watching the musicians interact last night was as much fun as listening to them. Why did clarinetist Janine Thomas point her clarinet at Stuart and laugh as they stood up to bow at the end of the Mozart “Kegelstatt”? What made violist Julius Wirth smile as he looked over at violinist Nicole Diaz during a passage in the last movement of the “Trout” Quintet before bassist Devin Howell smiled and it didn’t even look like he had been watching either of them?

For people who are not musicians, it just looks like they’re enjoying themselves, but part of that enjoyment is the flexibility of turning a phrase (shaping a line) in such a way that, when it’s played by another musician, they pick up on that and do the same. “What?” we think, “it wasn’t rehearsed that way?”

Heh heh.

That’s also part of being “friends.” If you respect each other, it becomes another element of this game we call “playing music.”

The other element that was fun to watch was the conductor’s interaction as “just another player.” They’re all on equal footing, here, but you also realize, as you’re thinking about how to spontaneously turn that phrase, let’s say, “hey, he’s also my boss.”

Many performers – either orchestra musicians or conductors – find playing chamber music a different and refreshing, even exhilarating world, and Stuart has said repeatedly how he looks forward to it, thrives on it as a way of expanding his focus.

That’s one of the reasons the orchestra’s players enjoy working with him – and vice versa (as Stuart has often said in those post-concert chats, “I’ve got the greatest job in the world”) – because the level of mutual respect, this give-and-take, this almost telepathic comprehension, permeates through the orchestra from first stand through the entire string section and down the rows of wind and brass players.

I love this clip from that 1969 documentary about a performance of Schubert’s “Trout” (you can see the whole performance of the piece on this previous post – the entire film contains more moments caught off stage in rehearsal, in preparation, in just hanging around backstage: for example, at the very end of the performance clip, there’s a bit of banter backstage before they go back out for their bows). There’s a problem getting the scherzo started: they’re not together.

Now, keep in mind the pianist, Daniel Barenboim, is already a world-famous conductor and bassist Zubin Mehta is the conductor of the Montreal Symphony recently appointed conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (the New York Philharmonic was in his future). Pinchas Zukerman, the violist, was a violinist just beginning his solo career who would also soon become well-known as a conductor. Though it would happen much later in his career, Itzhak Perlman also got bitten by the conductor bug. So you have at least three conductor-minded players trying to work out something a baton would have fixed easily.

But that’s the wonder of chamber music: everybody works together for the benefit of the music, a very different concept from the conductor-dominated orchestra (especially those with the old-fashioned tyrannical maestros) where the players’ job is to realize the conductor’s interpretation for the (one hopes) benefit of the music. 

The joy of music making is all part of being able to make music with friends and that doesn't matter how many players are on the program.

The program, incidentally, was made possible with generous support from Marilynn Kanenson (center, photograph above) in memory of her husband, former Symphony Board President Dr. William Kanenson, another important example of making music-making possible with support from friends.

- Dick Strawser 

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P.S. If you didn't read them before the concert, it doesn't matter: you can still find out more about the background behind the music you heard and since these posts also include clips of each piece, you can also listen to the music again.
Mozart's "Kegelstatt" Trio
Debussy's Piano Trio
Schubert's "Trout" Quintet
The photograph was taken after the concert by the Symphony's marketing director, Kim Isenhour.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mozart and Debussy among Stuart & Friends

Follow these links to read posts about the Mozart "Kegelstatt" Trio and the Piano Trio by Claude Debussy that are on the program tonight for Stuart & Friends, the annual evening of chamber music when conductor Stuart Malina, fresh off a weekend of Irish concerts on the Pops series and a reading of "Green Eggs & Ham" on Saturday morning, gets to unwind at the piano with friends and colleagues from the Harrisburg Symphony: clarinetist Janine Thomas, violinist Nicole Diaz, violist Julius Wirth, cellist Daniel Pereira and bassist Devin Howell.

You can read more about Schubert's "Trout" Quintet in this earlier post, here.

- Dick Strawser

Monday, March 19, 2012

Stuart & Friends: Gone Fishing... for Trout

 Tuesday night, the first night of real spring, "Stuart & Friends," an annual chamber music event with conductor Stuart Malina and several musicians from the Harrisburg Symphony - 7:30 at the Rose Lehrman Center at the Harrisburg Area Community College - will conclude with one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire, joined by violinist Nicole Diaz, violist Julius Wirth, cellist Daniel Pereira and bassist Devin Howell. It's called the "Trout" Quintet because Franz Schubert based one of the movements on a favorite song of his, Die Forelle (The Trout) but it's not a piano quintet which usually means a work for piano and string quartet: in Schubert's case, the four strings are a violin, a viola, a cello and a bass. It was written for that combination for a very specific reason - but more on that later.

Here is a wonderfully exuberant performance with five very close friends - pianist Daniel Barenboim, violinist Itzhak Perlman, violist Pinchas Zukerman, cellist Jacqueline du Pré and bassist Zubin Mehta (at this time, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; the New York Phil would be in his future by 9 years). It was recorded as part of a documentary film directed by Christopher Nupen in the summer of 1969 which will explain why they all look so very young. Zukerman, by the way, 20 at this time, would appear with the Harrisburg Symphony playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto three months later!

In 1815, Schubert, then 18, met the singer Johann Michael Vogl, a baritone who sang major roles at one of Vienna's major opera houses: the year before, he had created the role of the villain Pizzaro in Beethoven's latest revision of Fidelio. Reluctantly agreeing to meet the young composer, he sang through of a pile of songs, his reactions going from “not bad” to “you have something special in you, but as yet you are too little of the actor and showman; you have fine ideas but should make more of them.”

Vogl was a tall and imposing man. Schubert was about 5'1”. One of Schubert's friends drew a wicked caricature of the two, reflecting Vogl's stature in the arts community and Schubert's relative insignificance.

In those days, singers didn't give “song recitals.” Composers – even Mozart and Beethoven – wrote songs primarily for the domestic market, meaning amateurs to perform at home, back in the days before the invention of stereos, radios and TVs when people made their own entertainment rather than watched or listened to it. If you read any novels of the time – like Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, written in 1813 – there will likely be references to the young unmarried daughters of the house who would play the piano and sing for their friends and family: a girl's talent was considered a marriageable trait. These, then, were the performers Schubert's contemporaries had in mind except Schubert often wrote songs setting “deeper” poems with more difficult piano accompaniments and requiring more vocal technique. Vogl appreciated this and took Schubert and his songs around to his friends and sang this music for them. Without being published, Schubert would build a reputation as a composer of songs. It was, however, not a very good kind of reputation: opera was “where it was at.”

And that's probably why Schubert's friends arranged for Herr Vogl to meet their young friend. Money was to be made not in writing songs for pretty daughters to warble after dinner but in getting operas performed. That was the mark of a professional composer. In 1820, Vogl would sing the parts of twin brothers in Schubert's opera Die Zwillingsbrüder, written just for him. One of the few operas Schubert would complete or even see on the stage, it was a failure. One of music's great mysteries is that Schubert, an expert dramatist in the miniatures he wrote – Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, for instance, written when he was 16 – seemed incapable of finding the dramatic moment in extended scenes on the operatic stage.

Perhaps Schubert's most popular song is Die Forelle, “The Trout.” He wrote this during the spring of 1817. There's a famous story that, in the midst of drinking a good deal of wine on a Saturday night, Schubert sat down and (while everybody else was talking) wrote Die Forelle. The manuscript certainly looks like it, but the truth is, he was visiting a friend whose younger brother very much liked Schubert's songs, and so Schubert sat down and from memory wrote out a copy of this one for him – it was the third time he'd copied out this song, but keep in mind it was also in the days before there were photocopiers.
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"Die Forelle" (The Trout) with tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake:

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In 1819, Vogl was going on an extended vacation to his hometown of Steyr, an industrial town about 2/3s of the way between Vienna and Salzburg (it would celebrate its 1,000th Anniversary in 1980) and he decided to take his young friend Schubert with him.

Schubert stayed at the home of a “cultured lawyer” who had three sons and eight daughters and whose nephew, Anton Stadler, an old school friend of Schubert's, also lived there. He would meet Vogl for meals at the home of Josef Koller, an iron merchant whose daughter was a talented pianist named Josephine. It was there Schubert, Vogl, Josephine and Stadler performed Der Erlkönig as a trio (Schubert sang the part of the father). That month, Schubert also wrote a piano sonata just for Josephine – the Sonata in A Major, K.664.

Another piece of music associated with that vacation was a little cantata written for Vogl's 51st birthday – Schubert was again one of the singers – and performed at the Kollers' house.

More public music making took place at the home of a wealthy mining official, Sylvester Paumgartner, a bachelor who was a local patron of the arts and an amateur wind player and cellist. The best musicales in Steyr took place either in the music room or the larger 2nd floor salon of his home on the city's town square (see photo). Vogl, sort of a local hero having gone off to a great career in the Big City, was the center of attention and being a bit of a prima donna would not always feel like singing: on occasion Paumgartner had to get down on his knees and beg him to sing. Schubert was very much in the “back seat,” sitting at the piano, but still, people admired his songs, though they more openly enjoyed Vogl's singing of them. One of the favorites was Die Forelle.

Paumgartner owned a copy of Johann Nepomuck Hummel's Septet in an arrangement for the unusual combination of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass (the first 'real' piano quintet, consisting of the now standard string quartet plus piano, wasn't written until Schumann wrote his in 1842). In order to have something else for this group to play along with the Hummel, he asked Schubert to write a little something for him and, if he would, include a set of variations on the song Die Forelle as one of the movements. And so that's how Schubert came to write this Quintet in A Major for Piano & Strings - which has always been known as “The Trout Quintet.”

Since the original manuscript is lost and no one (not even his school friend Stadler) ever mentioned the performance in a letter or subsequent memoirs, it's hard to say when it was written or premiered. The going story is that he wrote it then and there and in a matter of days everybody played it and loved it.

Unfortunately, that's not true. There were two other visits to Steyr – 1823 and 1825 – but because of the style of the piece compared to its contemporaries, it's more likely it was written after this first visit when Schubert was 22.

What actually happened was that the request was made before Vogl and Schubert left, the piece was composed that autumn in Vienna, Stadler copied the parts and sent them back to Paumgartner. Unfortunately, Schubert overestimated Paumgartner's abilities as a cellist: apparently, the work was played through (perhaps not even performed), then put away on the shelf. It wasn't published until 1829, a year after Schubert died at the age of 31. Today, it is has become one of the most popular pieces in the chamber music repertoire.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Gabriel Fauré catches Pelléas Fever

This weekend’s concert with the Harrisburg Symphony includes Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with violinist Philippe Quint, and Mozart’s final symphony, justifiably given the lofty nickname “Jupiter.”

Fauré at time he wrote Pelléas
But the program opens with a beautiful, charming and downright exquisite work by Gabriel Fauré, a suite from the incidental music he’d composed for the play “Pelléas et Mélisande.”

The performances are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum. Dr. Timothy Dixon will be giving a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. This is also the concert supporting the nationwide program, Orchestras Feeding America.

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Listen to Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the delicious "Spinning Song" from Fauré's Suite:
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If everybody’s talking about Downton Abbey these days, Europe must have gotten caught up in “Pelléas Fever” shortly after Maurice Maeterlinck’s play first opened in Paris in 1893.

Claude Debussy had read the play soon after it was published the year before its premiere and asked Maeterlinck for permission to set it as an opera. He worked at it steadily until it was - finally! - ready for its first performance in Paris in 1902. It quickly became regarded as one of the great masterworks of the 20th Century, especially in the “impressionist” style. (You can see a complete video of the BBC production conducted by Pierre Boulez, here. By the way, I highly recommend this when you have a few hours!)

Debussy explained what attracted him to the play in the first place:

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"The drama of Pelléas which, despite its dream-like atmosphere, contains far more humanity than those so-called ‘real-life documents,’ seemed to suit my intentions admirably. In it there is an evocative language whose sensitivity could be extended into music and into the orchestral backcloth.”
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The largely forgotten Scottish composer William Wallace, who had a stylistic sympathy for the music of Liszt, wrote a tone-poem inspired by the play in 1903.

Arnold Schoenberg wrote a vast symphonic poem for a large orchestra inspired by the story (the subject was suggested to him by Richard Strauss) which he completed in February of 1903. It was premiered in 1905. Stylistically almost the exact opposite of Debussy’s more intimate score, it is scored for a huge orchestra with quadruple winds (instead of the standard double or triple) with 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 5 trombones and tuba. (You can hear an excerpt here of Claudio Abbado's performance with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, the section beginning with Pelleas' murder.)

Sibelius composed ten pieces to accompany a production of the play in Helsinki in 1905. (You can hear the opening of Sibelius' setting, here.)

Mrs. Campbell & Dog
But Gabriel Fauré had been asked by the English actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell for her London production of M’s play in 1898. She had initially invited Debussy to compose the music for her but he declined because he was busy trying to finish his opera. So she asked Fauré instead. This would make Fauré’s score the earliest of these musical settings of Maeterlinck’s story.

(I could not find any performances or videos I was comfortable recommending by embedding them here. There is a series of each section of the Suite with accompanying unrelated illustrations of the recording by Ernest Ansermet with not very good sound which, given those caveats, you can listen to, starting here.)

Fauré was also busy at the time. Before, when he was organist at one of the major churches in Paris and the inspector of provincial music schools (not to mention as a critic for Le Figaro), he often found himself trying to compose on a train or between two weddings.

But now, he had just been appointed professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, dealing not only with a busy schedule but also a nasty amount of political in-fighting.

After the death of the school’s director Ambroise Thomas in 1896 (who had regarded Fauré as “too modern” for the school), Jules Massenet expected to succeed him. Given his status in the French Pantheon of composers at the time, he felt he could demand to be appointed for life. They turned him down and gave the position to Theodore Dubois which infuriated Massenet who immediately resigned. Fauré then was appointed professor of composition in Massenet’s place.

Fauré felt composition students needed a firm grounding in the basic skills – harmony and counterpoint, especially – which he usually outsourced to his assistants. In his students’ lessons, he would help them make use of these skills as they pertained to what they were working on at the moment.

Among his students were Maurice Ravel (whom he was constantly defending against the more conservative faculty, especially after he was denied the coveted Prix de Rome in 1905), George Enescu (the Romanian violinist best known for his two Romanian Rhapsodies) and Nadia Boulanger who herself became one of the leading teachers of a significant number of 20th Century composers ranging from Aaron Copland to Elliott Carter and (if only obliquely) Astor Piazzolla.

Ravel would later tell this story about Fauré's open-mindedness. Less than enthusiastic about the new String Quartet he’d just showed him, Fauré asked to see the manuscript again a few days later: "I could have been wrong."

The musicologist Henri Prunières wrote, "What Fauré developed among his pupils was taste, harmonic sensibility, the love of pure lines, of unexpected and colorful modulations; but he never gave them receipts for composing according to his style and that is why they all sought and found their own paths in many different, and often opposed, directions.”

Anyway, back to April 1898 when Mrs. Campbell made her request. Since the production was to open in June, Fauré felt hampered by the tight deadline. As he wrote to his wife, “I will have to grind away hard for Mélisande when I get back. I hardly have a month and a half to write all that music. True, some of it is already in my thick head!” He was also expected to travel to London to conduct the performance – so in order to save time, he used a few earlier pieces (not the first composer to recycle bits from unsuccessful earlier works) and gave his sketches to his student Charles Koechlin to orchestrate them.

The Sicilliene, perhaps one of Fauré’s better-known melodies, was added at the last minute, taken also from an earlier work (originally for cello and piano) and may strike us as unbelievably sunny for such a gloomy location as the castle where Mélisande finds herself practically imprisoned. Originally, Fauré used it to underscore the tender love scene between the two ill-fated lovers.

Mrs. Campbell was enchanted by his music, in which she felt "he had grasped with most tender inspiration the poetic purity that pervades and envelops M. Maeterlinck's lovely play." She produced the play several times over the next 14 years, always using the music Fauré composed for her. Sarah Bernhardt also used it for her production of the play in 1904.

Originally, there were 17 brief orchestral interludes, three of which he later re-orchestrated for a standard orchestra rather than the original small “pit orchestra” to create the standard orchestral suite one hears in concerts and on recordings today - the Prelude (a pre-curtain Overture), the Spinning Song (Melisande at her spinning wheel) and the Death of Melisande. Fauré was unhappy with the first performance of the Suite and later added the Sicilienne (again).

Here, basically, is a summary of the plot:

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Prince Golaud finds a mysterious young woman, Mélisande, lost in a forest. He marries her and brings her back to the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. Here Mélisande becomes increasingly attached to Golaud’s younger half-brother Pelléas, arousing Golaud’s jealousy. Golaud goes to excessive lengths to find out the truth about Pelléas and Mélisande’s relationship, even forcing his own child, Yniold, to spy on the couple. Pelléas decides to leave the castle but arranges to meet Mélisande one last time and the two finally confess their love for one another. Golaud, who has been eavesdropping, rushes out and kills Pelléas. Mélisande dies shortly after, having given birth to a daughter, with Golaud still begging her to tell him “the truth”.
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- Dick Strawser

Orchestras Feeding America

This weekend's Harrisburg Symphony Concert - Saturday at 8:00, Sunday at 3:00 - can be more than just a musical experience for you, as you listen to Philippe Quint play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto or to the splendor of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony and the exquisite beauty of Faure's music for Pelleas & Melisande.

That's because March symphony orchestra concerts around the country have become a way of helping your local symphony support the local community with something that may strike the average concert-goer as “unmusical.”

A food drive?

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For millions of Americans, hunger is a reality. According to recent studies, one in six people in this country will struggle with simply putting food on the table. Over the last three years, orchestras have stepped in to help. The Orchestras Feeding America food drive, launched by the League of American Orchestras in partnership with Feeding America in 2009, has harnessed the collective energies of orchestras nationwide to help relieve hunger. Since the inaugural food drive, some 250 orchestras in all 50 states have partnered with their local food banks to raise more than 350,000 pounds of food. Many of these partnerships have turned into year-round collaborations, with orchestras collecting for food banks and becoming a regular source of much-needed food throughout the year. Other orchestras have been inspired to initiate food drives on their own at various times during the year. This activity is in addition to the food drives and other charitable activities that some orchestras have been engaged in for many years. All of this spotlights the central roles that orchestras occupy in their communities—and the impact they can have beyond the music they play. – Robert Sandla
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Orchestras Feeding America 2011 saw 100 orchestras collect 86,000 pounds of food bringing the total for the last three years to over 350,000 pounds. This is an incredible effort that has now involved 250 orchestras in all 50 states – thank you for being part of it. Please know that your efforts help spread the word about how and why orchestras are so necessary to their communities, beyond providing great music. Though these statistics may seem outdated, with the current economic situation hitting many people in communities across the country, it’s still a viable concern.

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In 2008, 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 32.4 million adults and 16.7 million children.

In 2008, 17.1 million households were food insecure, increased from the 13 million households in 2007.

In 2008, households with children reported food insecurity at almost double the rate for those without children, 21 percent compared to 11.3 percent.

In 2008, 2.3 million households with seniors were food insecure.

Feeding America provides emergency food assistance to approximately 4.5 million different people in any given week.
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Ann Huntoon, Executive Director of the Central Wisconsin Symphony of Stevens Point, said, “There is always a need in our area to obtain food for the people who lack food! The number of children in our county who qualify for the reduced-price lunch program is astonishing. The response to the food drive was slow prior to the concert weekends, but we were absolutely overcome at the donations brought in for the concert weekend. The food drive caused the donors to mingle longer in the lobby prior to the concert and to see the results at intermission.”

So join us and support the Harrisburg Symphony’s Food Drive by bringing non-perishable items to the Masterworks Concerts this weekend, March 3rd & 4th and the Capital BlueCross Pops Concert, March 17th & 18th at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

When you donate, be sure to pick up your 'ticket' - you could win.