During Spring Session, CA students got a unique glimpse of the inner workings of a world-class music organization by observing the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in rehearsal. 

Led by Performing Arts Department Head Michael Bennett and chamber music faculty Andra Dix, the weeklong course examined the operation of the Grammy Award-winning orchestra. Since the BSO was founded in 1881 by entrepreneur and philanthropist Henry Lee Higginson, it has achieved renown for its interpretations of classical repertoire and for championing contemporary compositions.

After learning about the orchestral structure, audition process, and the history of the music being performed, the class traveled to Symphony Hall to watch the BSO open rehearsal. It was a special opportunity for students to gain perspective on the creative dynamic between the orchestra and conductor by watching the repetition and refinement of musical passages and movements. 

“Nothing beats the experience of actually being in Symphony Hall and hearing the music live,” says Bennett. “Most of our students had never been before, and it was fun to see them delight in the music they were hearing.”

The program, led by guest conductor Thomas Wilkins, focused on music about social issues by Black American composers. This season the Boston Symphony Orchestra instituted a new Resident Fellowship Program for musicians from historically underrepresented groups. The program provided students with the important opportunity to discuss diversity and inclusion in the classical music genre. 

The concert opened with Margaret Bonds’ Montgomery Variations, a 1963 tribute to the powerful advocacy work of Dr. Martin Luther King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The piece represented the conflict through bold percussion, contrasted with ethereal string music reflecting the contemplation that led to the peaceful protests. 

The second piece, Anthony Davis’ clarinet concerto You Have the Right to Remain Silent, presented a musical response to a tense personal encounter with law enforcement. Featuring award-winning principal clarinetist Anthony McGill of the New York Philharmonic, the piece also included live electronic sounds and the words of the Miranda warning spoken by members of the orchestra.

During a rehearsal break, CA student composer Cecilia Wang ’23 had the opportunity to speak with Davis, who gave notes on the performance of his piece. For Wang, speaking with the Pulitzer Prize winner meant meeting one of their heroes. “I was thrilled to have a chance to chat with the composer himself about how the techniques work in the music as his piece is so inspiring to me” Wang reflects. Davis encouraged Wang to pursue their dreams as they study at a conservatory next year under one of his former students.

The program closed with William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, a lauded piece whose themes are taken from the melodies of spirituals. The moving rendition brought the audience to their feet. From the course experience, Bennett hopes students came away with “an appreciation for live orchestral music, and that they understand that it is a living, experiential art form.” As part of their studies, students were able to look behind the curtain to understand how music evolves from a work in progress to a work of art—an important lesson in discipline, collaboration, and teamwork.

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