By Anna Mae Kersey
When I was growing up, my parents, in an attempt to give my sister and me a cultural and well-rounded upbringing, would take us to see the symphony every time there was a performance. In order to get two energetic young girls to sit through the hour-and-a-half program of classical music, incentives such as chocolate were employed to encourage our cooperation.
Although. over the years, I developed an appreciation for classical music from my training in piano, harp, violin and opera, attending an orchestral concert felt more like an obligation than something that was freely chosen. Fast-forward a decade later and there I was of my own free will, sans chocolate, at the symphony on a Saturday night.
Why the metamorphosis? While a significant part of the change in outlook is likely due to my classical foundation, nostalgia, and coming-of-age, that is not the only explanation for my being here; the symphony has changed as well. Instead of stagnantly sticking to the classical standards, the Macon Symphony Orchestra has transformed into a multi-media experience. While one can certainly still expect to hear traditional orchestral fare, performances have now started to incorporate a variety of other forms of fine art including Shakespearean actors, ballet dancers, choral ensembles, and a traditional African singing and dancing troupe.
In the production of “Shakespeare in Love” instead of merely hearing Shakespeare-themed compositions, the audience was introduced to the program by the famous opening lines of “Romeo and Juliet”: “Two households both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene…” The Macon Symphony Orchestra then presented the audience with a strikingly different and surprising introduction; the pounding brass and sharp contrasting strings of Prokofiev’s “Montagues and Capulets” from the Romeo and Juliet ballet.
The orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Yaniv Segal, was then joined by two dancers from Steps Dance Studio, Olivia Boyd and Rodney Jones. The duo provided an interesting and non-traditional interpretation of the piece, changing what is normally a full-company “court dance” during which Romeo meets Juliet for the first time, into an intense pas de deux. The orchestra then went on to play Warbeck’s “Shakespeare in Love Suite” from the film of the same name, Bernstein’s playful “Symphonic Dances” from West Side Story, Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasy”, and were rejoined by the dancers for the final piece, Prokofiev’s poignantly beautiful “Romeo at the Tomb of Juliet.” Segal’s style of conducting was precise and masterful, and under his baton the orchestra was able to capture the wide-ranging repertoire with remarkable skill and ease.
Interspersed between the musical numbers were the fresh and relatable performances of previous Mercer student, Jake Adams, as Romeo, and graduating Mercer senior, Leah Parris, as Juliet. The two actors, under the direction of Theatre Macon’s Jim Crisp, were able to take some of the most well-known scenes from the play and portray not only the heartbreaking sadness, but also the wit and humor of Shakespeare’s words, maintaining a high level of realness that is so often lost in the usually trite, overdramatic interpretations of the star-crossed lovers. Although the orchestra’s mastery of the material was impressive enough on its own, these performances added additional layers of complexity to the program that made the material more accessible and appealing to a wider audience.
In “MSO Goes Hollywood,” conducted by Macon native and renowned conductor Roderick Cox, the program started with the familiar “A Hollywood Salute” by Wendel, followed by selections from “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter, “The Lord of the Rings,” “Cinema Paradiso,” “Fantasia,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “North by Northwest,” classic Westerns, and “Amistad.” Although the variety that these pieces encompassed was unique and entertaining in and of itself, the music was further enhanced by the performances of the Georgia College University Chorus Select and the traditional African singing and dancing of the Mandala Rainbow Tribe. There was truly something for everyone to enjoy, regardless of one’s personal musical preferences. Cox’s humorous and easy-to-understand remarks about the individual works throughout the evening emphasized that a definitive effort was being made to make the music more accessible and meaningful to the audience.
In a time when popular entertainment has become reduced to reality television and Netflix, one would have expected the symphony performances to be low in attendance, especially with regard to younger audiences. However, at both performances, not only were the majority of the seats filled, they were filled with people of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. By making classical music a multi-media experience, the Macon Symphony Orchestra has managed not only to preserve what might otherwise be a dying art form, but has nurtured it and caused it to blossom into something even more magnificent.
Anna Mae Kersey is a journalist working with Art Matters: Engaging the Community through Embedded Arts Journalists, a collaboration between the Macon Arts Alliance and Mercer’s Center for Collaborative Journalism. This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, Art Works. Matching funding provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The journalists in the program will spend time with artists and arts organizations in the Macon area through June, report what they discover, and foster ongoing conversations about the arts in Middle Georgia.