Music

Making Beautiful Music with the RI Philharmonic

RI's most musical non-profit reflects on a successful five years

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It is an overcast fall day and the large parking lot at 667 Waterman Street in East Providence is overflowing with mini vans and SUVS while a nearby ball field sits empty. Inside the adjacent brick building, people of all ages are scattered around the open light-filled spaces, sitting on deep-cushioned chairs and couches. In hall corners, clusters of teenagers text each other; parents and students tap away at open laptops on study tables. Amid the steady quiet tempo of activity, a melody emanates from behind closed doors. Welcome to another busy Saturday at the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Music School.

Five years ago this past September, at the height of the 2008 recession, the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Music School opened the Carter Center for Music Education & Performance, a renovated 31,000-square-foot wing in the former Meeting Street School.

“Every time I pull in and see the full parking lot, and all the cars and walk up to the door, I still get emotional that we have a building,” says Karen Pelczarski, founding member and past president of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Music School. The Barrington resident’s involvement with the school dates back to 1986 when a small group led by Alan Fox began the process to establish a community music school in Rhode Island, which at the time was the only state in the country without one.

The Facility

To refer to 667 Waterman Street as a building is an understatement. Behind the nondescript brick exterior is a complex encompassing two connecting structures, one for administrative offices and the other for music education and performance. Regarded as the best facility of its kind in New England, the Carter Center (named for benefactors John & Letitia Carter) has two state-of-the-art rehearsal/performance halls, two multi-purpose classrooms that can accommodate ensemble rehearsals, 31 studios for individual and small group instruction, a music-therapy lab, a digital recording/ composition and keyboard studio, a recording studio for student and professional use, an early Childhood, Suzuki & Music Therapy wing and a Jazz, Rock, Blues & Percussion wing.

‘You can build it, but they still may not come’ was Executive Director David Beauchesne’s worst fear five years ago. “We always knew we were creating something really valued and necessary in other communities nationally but was lacking in Rhode Island. My biggest fear was that people would not take advantage of it and enroll their children because they (the parents) had not grown up with it, and my other fear was that the local philanthropists would not give up the funding because they too had not grown up in a culture where these kinds of facilities were the norm and valued.”

His concerns were compounded by events dramatically beyond the executive director’s control. “When we imagined the building and were raising the money for it we didn’t expect the economic meltdown,” he says. “So the fact you are asking people to see the value of something they have not had before at a time when they have to make choices to scale back and you are asking them to enroll their child and to get donors to take on a new philanthropic interest was a significant concern.”

Five years later, with an average growth for student enrollment at 5%, it is evident that there was a need and want for a state of the art community music school facility. “I think we have overcome to a degree those obstacles of the economy and of newness,” observes David. Starting with 1,505 students in 2008 and growing to 2,065 students thus far in 2013 is cause for balanced optimism.

“What we are doing meets a need people everywhere have: parents want to find things of value for their children. A learning experience that is going to enrich the lives of their children and help them become happy, cultured, enlightened adults is what good community-based music education does,” David believes.

The Students

Just ask Sam Boswell. “I go to rehearsal and afterwards I feel so much better,” says the Portsmouth High School junior who started playing the tuba in 6th grade and more recently bass guitar. Sam personifies many of the students at the Carter Center: He plays in his high school marching band and jazz band but wanted more music in his life. He feels deeply connected to his experience as a member of the Senior Wind Ensemble at the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Music School. For Sam it is the challenge of mastering difficult music, “I like the music we play. It’s more difficult than what we play in school,” citing the Huntingtower Ballad by Ottorino Respighias an example. As for playing alongside other committed high school musicians from around the state, he says, “I was told once by a teacher the best way to get better is to play with better musicians.” Sam enjoys mathematics and music theory for the fun of it and plans to major in music in college. “I can’t see myself not doing it.”

Paying for Sam’s lessons has not been without sacrifice. His mother Amanda is a single parent who splits the cost with Sam’s dad. Being a school teacher, Amanda has taken on extra jobs in the summer over the years to help cover the fees. “Sam was in the orchestra and the wind ensemble and was taking weekly private lessons, so tuitions were tough sometimes,” she explains. “The added expense was quite worth it given that Sam is so talented. He has been either first or second chair tuba in RIMEA all-state every year since eighth grade. The benefits far outweighed the monetary cost.”

A reoccurring theme among the students is the desire to take their musicality to the next level. Bristol resident and trumpet player Elisabeth Iacono, also in the Senior Wind Ensemble, is involved in the band program at Mt. Hope High School where she is a senior. Ambivalent and intimidated when she first auditioned in 7th grade at the Carter Center for the Junior Ensemble, the Bristol resident now looks forward to rehearsals. “Everyone takes rehearsals seriously and they are there for the music and not for a grade like in school,” believes Elisabeth, who plans to continue with music in her life but hopes to be a history major in college.

“It is so easy to hear Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Music School and assume it is just about classical music - but it has so many other offerings,” says Suzanne O’Brien of Bristol. Ask her sons Burke and Bryce about the Jazz Ensemble program, which they have participated in the past two years and for which they have contagious enthusiasm. “I had taken piano since I was six-years-old and could read music, but I had no idea about doing Jazz improv. It was so great to learn about the whole concept of improvisation and it was an opportunity to jam with musicians from all over,” explains Burke. The family began going to the Carter Center when Bryce, a passionate guitar player, took a weeklong summer course that included everything from music theory to ensemble work. “It was a great week and after that I made my brother sign up with me to do a Jazz ensemble,” he says.

The brothers who are teammates on the Mt. Hope cross country team and class officers are looking ahead to college. For Burke, a junior, even though music is much more than just a hobby, he is interested in studying economics and IT security. Sophomore Bryce will pursue a career in music: “a college with a good music department is essential.” The ensemble experience has given them the ability to now perform together and the duo recently competed at the New England’s Got Talent Show finals. They did so well they have been invited back to perform in another show this December.

Suzanne appreciates that the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Music School looks individually at the skill and interest level of each student when putting the ensemble groups together and the additional benefit of friendships with other musicians. “We made this opportunity a financial priority for our sons. Mt. Hope offers a very strong school music program but my husband and I felt the Jazz Ensemble was a unique opportunity for the boys to learn to play in a group with students from all over the state. To have the music school is a tremendous resource for those families who want it.”

Recipe For Success

A crucial ingredient to the success as seen by Karen and David has been the marriage of the Music School with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra, which had its share of naysayers in 2000. There was a Merger Committee made up of Music School and Orchestra board members who studied the feasibility over two years. “I think now no one would say in retrospect it was a mistake,” concludes Karen. The biggest concern came down to money. David points out, “The finances would be challenged taking two non-profits that are difficult to raise money for in a small state and putting them together to get funding. Everyone was committed to the idea, but there were different levels of confidence that the idea would work. With the merger, ultimately everyone got behind it and said ‘let’s make it work,’ whether someone supported the merger or not, then everyone takes pride in what has happened and it has worked significantly well.”

Gene Crisafulli has seen the Orchestra develop over the years first hand. The Swansea resident has been a member of the Rhode Island Orchestra playing trumpet for the past 37 years. He is also the orchestra personnel manager and has instructed at the Carter Center in past years. He credits Conductor Larry Rachleff and fellow Orchestra members for the success and national stature of the Orchestra. “It is a testament to Conductor Rachleff who has been at the helm for 18 years. People love him,” says Gene, referring to both musicians and patrons alike. “Musicians want to play for him, the audience loves his programs and when you look at the quality of musicians who are members of the Orchestra and their talent and you look at the budget it is pretty amazing in all modesty at how remarkable the orchestra is.”

Valuable synergies exist between School and Orchestra not common with community music schools across the country. David cites examples, “Our music director Conductor Rachleff, head of Orchestral Studies at Rice University, is considered one of the best teachers of orchestral playing and conducting in the country. He gives our students three to five master classes a year, and we offer master classes with guest artists who come to perform with the Orchestra. These are musicians who are considered the best at what they do in the world, and many members of the Orchestra are members of the school’s faculty. So there is a whole climate of music learning and music making that we have which sets us apart.”

The Music School has also helped develop and bring a new younger and diverse audience to the Orchestra. Ticket sales for the Orchestra have grown nearly 15% since 2008. David credits the generous support by Amica Insurance to the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Music School for a program which allows music school families to purchase deeply discounted subscriptions for the Orchestra’s Rush Hour Concert Series.

A Look Ahead

As the organization looks ahead the work has only just begun. On the list according to David is to raise funding support to offer need blind financial aid, expand and promote the Flex with the Phil music education program to the Rhode Island schools which currently serves 10,000 students in the Link Up! portion from across the state and implement creative affordable marketing opportunities to promote the extensive music education list of offerings featured in the 28-page course catalog. One offering by the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Music School that has been the biggest surprise in the past five years has been music therapy. Their music therapists worked with over 550 students last year. “We have been able to serve an underdeveloped need that wasn’t being met before,” he proudly points out.

There are still misconceptions to dispel: that the organization is only for musical prodigies, or that to get the best in music education and performance you have to travel to Boston, chief among them. It is frustrating to David and Gene. “What is really true is that there is an orchestra that is equally as good as anything you can hear any night in Boston with a world class conductor. Likewise with the school you can study here with some of the same people who teach at some of the finest institutions in Boston. There is still an attitude that because we are in Rhode Island it can’t be that good,” states David.

A national spotlight was placed on the Orchestra when in 2000 it was selected by blind audition to perform at the League of American Orchestras national convention and received high praise from peers from around the country, and yet the Orchestra, points out Gene, “still flies under the radar for such a little state like Rhode Island – the dedication, hard work, tremendous talent of musicians.”

Back at the Carter Center for Music Education & Performance, open the door to the large rehearsal hall and 80 high school students from around the state with their instruments fill the orchestra seats. The instructor takes to the podium, raises his arms and starts to count. Five years ago when the Carter Center opened, these young people were in grammar and middle school. The Youth Ensemble Orchestra begins playing Edvard Grieg’s soaring Peer Gynt. As the music reaches a crescendo the words of Executive Director David Beauchesne come to life: “When you create community music education you are fostering and nurturing a young music community who will be there in 15 to 30 years and longer for Rhode Island.”