18 Feb 2022

Fifth-grade Concerts: The most exciting concert of the year 

by Kathleen Sykes 

February is an exciting month at Utah Symphony | Utah Opera! Around this time of year, we’re getting prepared for our March opera; we’re finalizing plans for announcing the coming season; we’re honoring our healthcare workers on Healthcare Night; and, of course, our orchestra is performing many great concerts.  

But one of the most important things we do all month is to present a series of highly exclusive, invite-only, FREE events for some of the most important people in our community: Our fifth-grade concerts! 

Every season, Utah fifth graders get bussed to Maurice Abravanel Hall to experience a live symphony orchestra perform just for them and their teachers. Not only is it a great opportunity for them to experience world-class musicians in a gorgeous concert hall, we make it a well-rounded cultural experience by tying it to what they are learning in their core curriculum. In past years, we have programmed exciting concerts highlighting the immigrant experience, exploring birds and the natural world, and honoring the 125th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in Utah with a program featuring solely female composers.  

This year, we’re presenting “Encore: A Celebration of Black Symphonic Music.” We’ve curated a program that not only presents some of the best composers of the 19th and 20th centuries, but it also gives insight and context into their history and contributions to the music world.

Scott Joplin 

Of all of the people on this list, we guarantee you have heard of Scott Joplin—if not by name, then by his music! He’s best known for being the “King of Ragtime” and had popular hits like “The Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer.”  

He was a bright, talented child. A music teacher in his childhood hometown in Texas took note of this and took him under his wing. He later went on to compose 40 original ragtime pieces, a ragtime ballet, and two operas. Joplin was incredibly generous with his time and paid it forward by assisting and instructing younger musicians. He had a profound belief in the importance of education (something that we can relate to!). 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a British composer born in 1875. At the young age of 15, he received a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music. He had so much success with his cantata, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, that he able to take it on three tours to the United States—not to mention that its popularity rivaled Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah

We feature two of his works in our fifth-grade concerts this year, but “Danse Nègre” from African Suite is particularly delightful. 

Florence Price 

In William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Malvolio says, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them,” and Florence Price is a particularly great example of all three.  

She was definitely born for greatness to successful parents who valued music and education. She gave her first piano performance when she was just four; published her first composition when she was 11; and went to study at Boston Conservatory at 14—not much older than the fifth-graders in our audiences! 

Flying in the face of personal, professional, and societal setbacks as a Black woman, she achieved a lot as an artist and was an unstoppable force. She wrote more than 345 works, including four symphonies, nine orchestral works, and four concertos. Making history, she was the first Black, female composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra. Her work is deeply moving—listen to this: 

William Grant Still 

If this were a list of the best American composers of the 20th century, William Grant Still would belong somewhere at the top. He got into music late, starting violin lessons at the age of 15. He then proceeded to teach himself to play not just one, but SIX more instruments. While at Oberlin Conservatory, a professor asked him why he wasn’t studying composition; when he responded that he couldn’t afford it, his teachers made a point to give him that opportunity. 

William Grant Still had that great, all-American sound that you associate with the early-to-mid 20th century. It was reminiscent of musicals, films, and the Gershwin brothers… or was it the other way around? 

Allegedly, George Gershwin once heard Still play a tune on the piano which rattled around in his brain for years until it became the familiar “I Got Rhythm” we know today. Still’s granddaughter even corroborated the story! You can hear part of that tune below, from Still’s Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American.” 

Wynton Marsalis 

This list would not be complete without Wynton Marsalis. As a musician, composer, teacher, Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, AND a Pulitzer Prize winner, he is a true Renaissance man. The best part about him—you can still see and hear him perform live!  

Marsalis was born in Louisiana in 1961 and made a splash as the youngest musician ever admitted to Tanglewood’s Berkshire Music Center. He went to The Juilliard School, assembled his own band, and has been busy touring, composing, and nurturing a new age of jazz and orchestral music ever since!  

 The fifth-graders and their teachers will be treated to “Big City Breaks” from Blues Symphony. If you’re looking for an entertaining listen/watch, however, may we suggest A Fiddler’s Tale. It was written as a response to Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Story and is a great blend of music, acting, and spoken word. 

We are thrilled that by the end of February, Black History Month, we will have exposed more than 10,000 fifth-graders to the music of these extraordinary composers! Want to learn more about the program? Click here for the teacher’s materials, and learn along with us!