What if the audience were as good as the performance?

Once every two years our church has the honor of hosting the J. Laiten Weed Honors Orchestra. J. Laiten Weed was the director of the Yankton College Conservatory of Music and a charter member of the South Dakota String Teachers’ Association. When his wife, Lucy, died in 1986, Late established a string scholarship fund in her memory. The fund soon evolved into the Lucy Palermo Weed String Competition. Upon his death, additional funds allowed the establishment of the Honors Orchestra. Each year, twenty-two high school string students achieving the highest scores in auditions for each year’s South Dakota All-State Orchestra are selected for the Honors Orchestra. They receive their music for individual rehearsal in December and come together the the Thursday before the Saturday concert for two intense days of rehearsal with a clinician/conductor and a polished concert. In even numbered years, the concert is held at our church and in odd numbered years in the eastern part of the state.

The concert is always stunning and last night was no exception. It was a delightful and professionally rendered performance. Dr. Jungho Kim of Kent State University served as the clinician and conductor. It was a privilege to sit in the audience and witness the performance.

The performance of the families was less impressive.

Of course, even an event as noble as the honors orchestra has its problems. The orchestra does not really reflect the diversity of the state. In theory every student who attends a school that is a member of the South Dakota High School Activities Association is eligible to participate. In reality the level of performance is so high that only students who go to schools that have highly developed string programs ever succeed in rising to the top in the competition. That means that year after year the orchestra is comprised of students from the two largest school districts in the state: Sioux Falls and Rapid City. Once again this year all of the orchestra’s participants were from those two cities.

The students come with a sense of entitlement, having had the best in private lessons, the best in musical instruments and a high degree of support from family. After two days of intense rehearsal and almost no free time they arrive at the church wound up. 20 years ago the students arriving for the concert would have had experience with churches and know how to behave in a church. These days, the church is simply another performance venue to the students and they spread out and explore the building, including trying locked doors, using classrooms other than the ones designated for them, and generally leaving a trail of their possessions all over the building. They are used to living in a privileged environment and treat church staff the way they are used to treating janitors in their school. It is annoying, but they are young and gifted and we have learned to do our best to be gracious hosts for their visit.

The students, however, bring with them parents and grandparents and other family members who are aware of the brilliance of their students and know that the achievement of those students has come in part from intense parental support and at times parental pressure. They have mad a religion out of the success of their children and have made their children’s performances central to their lives. A couple of examples from last night stand out.

Because of copyright laws and performance licensing of the music performed, recording of the concert is prohibited. The concert programs ask the audience not to make audio or video recordings. That didn’t stop more than a half dozen audience members from making video recordings. They didn’t try to mask what they were doing. Sitting in the back of the room it was easy to see which ones were recording. One woman stood to hand-hold her camera during the entire performance without any regard for those who were sitting behind her. She pushed her way to the other side of the room during the intermission to use a wall plug to recharge her camera batteries and then returned to her post. I am no expert in recording video and I know that modern cameras have image stabilization and other advanced features, but I’m confident that the recording was far less than professional grade. There was no external microphone and the position of the camera was one one side of the orchestra so the sound wasn’t balanced. And the camera was hand held so there would be some unnecessary movement of the camera during the performance. The goal wasn’t to have a professional recording of the performance. The woman doing the recording simply felt entitled to take away from the concert whatever she wanted regardless of what might be considered typical behavior for a classical music concert. I suspect that much of her filming was zoomed in on a single student and didn’t show the incredible collaboration and coordination of 22 students working together to achieve a total experience.

Members of the concert audience were asked to sit on the main floor and told that the balcony was closed and not available for seating. The lights in the stairwells were turned off, but over and over again I saw people turning them back on. I asked audience members directly not to sit in the balcony, but they refused to my face and went upstairs anyway. Once in the balcony they rearranged the chairs so that they could sit next to the balcony rail. Because the concert is on a Saturday evening, our church doesn’t have janitorial service between the concert and worship on Sunday morning. Members of our church volunteer to clean the bathrooms and pick up after the concert. Last night’s tasks included having to put the furniture in the balcony back into its place. Despite our best efforts, it is likely that some choir member will notice that things aren’t as they left it following their most recent rehearsal.

None of those things, however, affected the brilliance of the performance. We will be honored to host the orchestra the next time they come. And we will welcome the parents and other family members with open arms, if with a bit less enthusiasm than we extend to the youth.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!