Sunday, January 27, 2008


IRIS rehearses with Stax Music Academy students

By Christopher Blank

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony are easily the most iconic in classical music.


"Fate knocking on the door," is how the composer described them.

Back in 2000, when conductor Michael Stern first knocked on the door of the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, he used the Symphony No. 5 as a calling card.

That musical phrase launched the IRIS Orchestra into existence with romantic fervor.

Eight years since, Stern's hand-picked chamber orchestra has recorded several critically acclaimed albums, commissioned new works of music and created a national reputation.

But in part because many of the musicians live outside the Memphis area, as does the conductor, the orchestra had not established roots in the community. Indeed, IRIS critics still call it a pickup band, even though some players have been with the group for years.

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra, by contrast, with its resident musicians and larger budget, has numerous outreach programs scattered throughout the city.

This year IRIS found a worthy cause. On Thursday night, 45 musicians went knocking on the door of the Stax Music Academy, an after-school music program for inner-city children.

One guess how the greeting went.


"Right now, we're just trying new things to see how we can be a better participant in the community," said David DePeters, the orchestra's operations manager. "We've had players come to Stax before, but this is the first time for the full orchestra."

Many of the musicians had just gotten off their planes when a

chartered bus brought them to Soulsville on McLemore in South Memphis.

First they heard students from the Stax Charter School perform old label classics -- "Dock of the Bay," "Mr. Big Stuff" and "Theme from Shaft" -- on the school's orchestral instruments they'd earned the right to play by learning skills that collected merit points.

After a break, the choir room was rearranged into an orchestra setting. Students from the Stax Music Academy filled in the empty chairs around the musicians, peering over shoulders at sheet music as Stern struck up the first rehearsal of the Fifth Symphony, which will be heard tonight at GPAC.

"The connection here is in the spirit of what we do," Stern said. "IRIS is a group of people who come from all across the country for the love of making music. These kids come from across the city with one goal in mind, to make music. We've got a lot in common. It's a good partnership."

Packed into a tight semi-circle, the orchestra launched into the music. Stern fussed over the opening notes. A maestro has to. They constitute the most important phrase in the whole score.


"Why was that not together? Because we're not breathing together. Let's do it again." Stern raised his baton.


Miracle McGhee, 16, sat beside the clarinet player, entranced. For five years, she has studied the instrument and learned to improvise in a jazz band and to transpose notes.

The clarinet gave the shy teenager the confidence to stand up in a crowded room and be heard.

This was different. This was more intense than jazz. As her eyes kept up with the notes on the page, she realized that classical music sounds harder than it looks.

She also heard a different set of dynamics. Within every note of the symphony, whether part of the whole or a solo passage, there were so many subtleties of tone and rhythm.

"These guys must be so dedicated to what they do," she said. "You can tell they eat, sleep and breathe their instruments."

Yet dedication is why she comes to the academy. At home, her application to the Berklee College of Music is ready to go. Classical music is the next step in her training.

IRIS musicians are happy to discuss career with students.

Many of the pros play with orchestras. Others, such as cellist Eric Stephenson, perform a variety of music. At home in New York City, Stephenson works in a trio that includes a funky "beatbox flute" player.

"Kids see that an orchestra takes teamwork," he said. "Hopefully they see that we're all individuals with our own styles and backgrounds, but we still get a sense of worth playing in an orchestra."

Trumpeter Darin Kelly, of Philadelphia, spent a few minutes with Delvin Tubbs, 17, a senior from Booker T. Washington High School, discussing the trumpet's range.

"The key is to listen, listen, listen," Kelly said. "Listen to as many things as you can. Figure out what the player is doing and how they do it."

Although the Stax Music Academy doesn't focus on classical music, the school's chancellor, Cary Booker, says that mingling with other players provides a valuable experience.

"It's hard to say if this is making them better musicians," he said. "But the core of our mission is developing well-rounded people. They have an opportunity to interact with great musicians and talk about their favorite interest. It doesn't matter that it's classical music. They just love music, period."

In the dining room, after Beethoven had been played to exhaustion and its troublesome spots dissected and reworked, Stern chatted with a group of students over pizza.

"I'm amazed at the questions they're asking me," he said. "I mean, they are noticing things about conducting that I usually hear from college students."

The musicians loaded onto the bus back to Germantown, and parents arrived for their kids. Stashed away in backpacks and instrument cases was a gift from IRIS -- a recording of the ensemble's first performance, at GPAC on Sept. 19, 2000.

Should the kids ever need to know how to make a musical entrance, they can just refer to the CD.


-- Christopher Blank: 529-2305

© 2008 Scripps Newspaper Group — Online


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