Discover Classical Music

(Above: George Marriner Maull presents ‘Discover the Firebird.’ Credit Daniel Hedden)

On Wednesday, April 29, at 8 pm ET, New Jersey Public Television (NJTV) will debut Discover the Firebird, a one-hour teaching concert exploring Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. The show will stream simultaneously on njtvonline.org/live and then air this May on other public TV stations.

Discover the Firebird is presented by 85 members of The Discovery Orchestra, a New Jersey-based group dedicated to turning listeners onto classical music. The orchestra was founded by its conductor George Marriner Maul as the Philharmonic Orchestra in 1987. It was rebranded as the Discovery Orchestra in 2006.

The DIscovery Orchestra performs Discover the Firebird

Discover the Firebird will be the orchestra’s fifth public TV program. Previous concerts included Bach to the Future, Discover Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and the eight-episode Fall in Love with Music. The orchestra’s programs have been nominated for three Emmy awards. (You can find programs from The Discovery Orchestra on Amazon Prime and at youtube.com/discoveryorchestra.)

Composer and regular Savvy Screener contributor Charlie Greenberg recently asked Maestro Maull about inspirations for the orchestra, its concerts, and helping audiences, both newcomers and afficionados, connect with classical music.

Charlie Greenberg:  What was your inspiration for the concept of concert/audience interaction — and when did you begin the series?

Maestro George Marriner Maull: I grew up in a musical home. Around sixth grade I began to notice that some people listened very intently to classical music as it was being performed, while others did not. I wondered why.

In high school, I met Saul Feinberg who taught “perceptive music listening” at Abraham Lincoln High School in Philadelphia. Saul changed the lives of literally thousands of teenagers, and taught me everything I know about teaching music listening.

Decades later, as music director of the Philharmonic Orchestra of New Jersey, with the encouragement of the board and staff, I decided to use this format in a concert setting. In 1996, we presented our first Discovery Concert at Princeton University – Bach to the Future – which we would subsequently record in 2002, our first production for American Public Television. We later renamed the ensemble The Discovery Orchestra and began to exclusively offer interactive listening encounters in live and electronic media settings.

CG:  Stravinsky’s Firebird Ballet may have startled audiences in 1910, or even during the debut of the suite in 1919. But broadly speaking, would certain contemporary pieces be too complex for this approach?

GMM: There are works by composers of the Second Viennese School that I personally find engaging and powerful but would be unlikely to program in a Discovery Concert – for example Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, or Berg’s Lulu Suite. I believe these composers stretched the limits of tonality and formal complexity beyond the point that even many seasoned classical concert attendees can tolerate, let alone assimilate. And there are budgetary considerations, of course. With the Stravinsky score we used in our upcoming television production, 85 or more musicians are required to perform those pieces. We’re a non-profit organization, so budget, as well as works that will have the greatest popular appeal, are factors.

CG:  A la Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts,” do you also provide interactive concerts for children, and if so, what classical pieces might you perform?

GMM: Leonard Bernstein has been a great inspiration for me. His musical insights are unparalleled. As many have said, his televised “Young People’s Concerts” were perhaps his greatest contribution to music education, expanding the listening horizons of several generations of Americans.

Our Discovery Concerts were originally conceived for adults rather than young audiences. But over time we’ve discovered they are meaningful educational experiences for children as young as seven, seniors in their 90s and individuals of all ages.

We’ve found that compositions featuring the present-day full symphony orchestra, with its wide array of instrumental timbres, are generally more exciting for audience members, regardless of their age. Late 19th and early 20th Century works by composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Rimsky-Korsakov are ideal, but costly to program. That said, we have found our audiences respond equally as well to Bach, Mozart and Rossini as they do to Beethoven, Strauss and Bartok, and to our newest Discovery concert — Discover The Firebird — featuring the music of Stravinsky.

The Discovery Orchestra
(Above: The Discovery Orchestra. Source: YouTube video)

CG: From a technical perspective, have you taken this approach to the conservatory level?

GMM: In every Discovery concert we highlight technical concepts related to each of the elements of music: rhythm, melody, texture, harmony, dynamics, timbre and form. Devices such as sequence, deceptive cadence, re-harmonization, suspension and resolution, and forms such as rondo and sonata form might be presented. Our instruction is playful, interactive, humorous at times, and sprinkled with everyday life analogies. It is as fulfilling to watch seven-year-olds count the number of fugue subject entrances on their fingers as it is to watch millennials and seniors do the same thing. Physical responses such as raising hands “when the trombones enter,” or standing “when the recapitulation begins” help to create visceral connections to technical concepts.

The Discovery Orchestra takes questions
(Above: The Discovery Orchestra concerts feature audience interaction. Source: YouTube video)

Perhaps the most amusing reactions we have observed in past seasons have been those of our players. All highly skilled graduates of schools like Juilliard, the Manhattan School and Indiana University, they will occasionally be heard saying as they walk off stage: “I never noticed that in that movement!” 

Our educational distributor, Films Media Group (FMG) in New York, streams our visual material to students in middle school to year 12 as well as university and college classrooms.The programming seems to work in educational settings. Our first television show, Bach to the Future, has been a best seller at FMG since 2003.

CG: Has streaming video helped you find new audiences for classical music? If so, how?

GMM: Streaming has allowed us to expand our audience. It is extremely gratifying to know from the Nielsen ratings that each of our four previous productions for American Public Television has been watched by more than one million viewers nationwide. With Films Media Group streaming all five of our television productions as well as our short-form videos available on YouTube, we believe that we are fulfilling our mission: “To teach the listening skills that help people really emotionally connect with classical music.”

Editor’s note: Charlie Greenberg, a regular contributor to ‘The Savvy Screener,’ has composed original scores and songs for numerous off-Broadway productions and instrumental ensembles. His new album, ‘Songs of Male Middle-Age-Crazy!,’ is available from Spotify.

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Charlie Greenberg is a NY-based theater and instrumental composer.

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