Features, Print November 2, 2018

The Greeley Phil’s Got You (And Your Kazoo Too)

by Dan England

The next time you attend a Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra concert, you may want to bring your kazoo. Oh, you don’t have one? That’s OK. The Philharmonic’s gotchu.

On November 9, the orchestra will play, among other classics, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, perhaps the most striking and well-known piece in classical music (yes, you’ve definitely heard it). To celebrate the performance of this masterpiece, the Philharmonic wants the audience to play along using, yes, a kazoo.

Unless you’re a stick in the mud — and since you’re reading Bandwagon instead of, say, The Economist, you probably aren’t — you may think the kazoos are fun, or even funny. The Philharmonic not only hopes you do, but officials hope it brings you back for another show.

The kazoo is an admittedly small but symbolic part of the Philharmonic’s season. This season is, in many ways, the most audience-friendly of its astounding 108 years and there are ways to prove it. This season is the most pops-heavy ever, said Glen Cortese, the Philharmonic’s musical director. There’s an even split between pops and classics concerts, starting with October’s season opener which featured Mandy Harvey, the deaf sensation who did well on America’s Got Talent, continuing right into the Nov. 9 Home Grown concert. Even the more traditional classical concerts, the ones the uninitiated still think orchestras play all the time, are different. The Nov. 9 concert, for instance, features those kazoos.

The effort to attract a wider audience isn’t exactly a new concept for the Philharmonic or for orchestras all over the country, and yet, there’s an urgency like never before to do so. Some orchestras are closing, and, let’s face it, their audiences are literally dying off. Even the most stoic are trying new things. The New York Philharmonic, for instance, recently played a concert to a film in the background. Yes, the movie was The Red Violin, an art film with a classical music theme, but it was still a groundbreaking moment, Cortese said. “They never would have done that 10 years ago,” Cortese said. “The times, they are a changin’, as Bob Dylan said. If we want to preserve what we do, we have to adapt.”

The Greeley Phil, for its part, has tried new ideas for the last few years, including playing to a film and partnering with the University of Northern Colorado to present West Side Story. The show was packed both nights. They also played with a Beatles tribute band later in the season to another sold-out concert. The success of both events emboldened the Philharmonic to stretch out even more this year, with another UNC partnership to present the Broadway musical Disney’s Beauty and the Beast as well as a buffet of music sampled from different countries in Around the World in 80 Minutes. The last concert, another traditional offering, features 150 UNC singers.

The Philharmonic reached out in other, less wild ways as well. Members of the orchestra gave introductions to the evening’s concert and talked about how the music influenced them. Trombonist Frank Cook, who also teaches UNC’s History of Rock and Roll class, talked about The Beatles before last year’s show and how they made him want to play the loudest instrument in the band. The Philharmonic will do that this year too, and the only soloists will be members of the orchestra – another change.

“There’s an invisible barrier between the stage and the seats,” said Nick Kenney, the Philharmonic’s executive director. “When you have them speaking to the audience, that humanizes them. It helps the audience make a connection.”

Cortese still wants the Philharmonic to present those more traditional offerings. That, he said, should never change. “People gain insight from the great classics. It’s important to have both,” Cortese said. “An orchestra’s principle job is to preserve music from all those years ago.” Cortese said he believes this season does offer that balance, even as it shifts to more pops offerings than ever before. Yes, even the kazoo has a purpose.

“The thing that’s really interesting about the Fifth Symphony is the piece is based on a simple, concise motif,” Cortese said. “It’s the obvious main theme, and yet I’m hoping to teach the audience about how it morphs and changes throughout the piece.”

The kazoo will help the audience connect to those first few famous notes and perhaps ready their ears to listen for the theme throughout the 40 minutes of the rest of the symphony, Cortese said. It’s cheesy, but the kazoo is a way to help the audience engage with the music. Besides, everyone knows how to play a kazoo.

“We could have given them clarinets,” Cortese said and laughed. “But not everyone plays those.”


Photos by Peary Schroeder for Bandwagon Magazine