When a member of The Orion Ensemble approached St. Charles East High School orchestra director Ben Oswalt about having his students participate in a pilot music program, he said he couldn’t turn down the opportunity.
Oswalt’s sophomore, junior and senior music students have been participating in the pilot program dubbed “Janet’s Stage” since the beginning of the school year. Through the program, members of The Orion Ensemble – what clarinetist and ensemble executive director Kathryn Pirtle says is one of the top chamber music groups in the country – works with high school students at St. Charles East, Batavia High School and Geneva High School.
Although still in its early phases, Oswalt said Janet’s Stage so far has been well received.
“I think any local director will tell you that when you have opportunities to collaborate with a very high-level musical group or any professional group, that can always be a real plus for students,” Oswalt said. “[The Orion Ensemble] obviously wants to share their love of chamber music.”
Pirtle said members of The Orion Ensemble, which – in addition to Pirtle – is made up of violinist Florentina Ramniceanu, pianist Diana Schmück and cellist Judy Ston, decided to create Janet’s Stage because they felt chamber music wasn’t very accessible to younger musicians in the Fox Valley area. The collaboration is named after former ensemble board chair Janet Safanda, who died last year.
“We have started to extend our reach to young people in a really big way by developing this educational outreach program,” Pirtle said of the yearlong initiative. “ ... The Fox Valley area is a bit under-served for chamber music, so we are there in a capacity that nobody else is providing.”
Oswalt said he felt Pirtle’s observation about the lack of accessibility to chamber music in the Fox Valley area was spot on. He said students have some opportunities to experience that type of music, but they aren’t as prevalent as they once were.
“If you ask my kids, ‘do you listen to chamber music outside of class?’ Most are going to say no,” he said. “This has been a jump-start to reinitiate kids into that, and I think the best way to learn is to do it in small groups. ... To have a professional step out and say it’s important, it’s going to make a difference in a young musician’s life.”
Pirtle explained that chamber music consists of a small group of musicians who generally play without a conductor. She said students who study chamber music learn the skill of working together as a group without someone telling them every note they’re playing. Chamber
music students also develop skills that are formative in artistic development, in general, she added.
“Chamber music is wonderful because you’re responsible for your own part and you have to learn your own part really well,” she said.
In addition to working with students about once a month, the group also offers free tickets for students to any of The Orion Ensemble’s shows.
The year may culminate with joint concerts between students and The Orion Ensemble this spring, but that’s still tentative.
Pirtle said The Orion Ensemble plays varying styles of music, including jazz, contemporary, ballet, pieces with narration and even funk.
“There’s just as much variety in chamber music as there is in any other kind of music,” she said. “You can cross all boundaries of style.”
At Geneva High School, orchestra director Julie Lawrence said all of her students are involved in chamber music, whether it’s a quintet or a quartet.
After seeing The Orion Ensemble in concert, Lawrence said she was amazed with the quality of the group’s music.
“My kids don’t even realize what they’re working with here and what these women have done,” she said. “They are superb performers. This is a big deal.”
Janet’s Stage works with schools free of charge thanks to the $22,000 donated toward the initiative, Pirtle said. She said she hopes to raise enough money by the end of this year to continue the program next year.
“We’re hoping the community will reach out and support this,” she said. “The community has embraced us, but we would love for more people in the community to hear what we’re doing and to know the difference we’re making in the tapestry of the Fox Valley, and that we’re giving students a unique experience.”
How to donate:
To donate to the Janet’s Stage initiative, which helps make chamber music more accessible to students at St. Charles East, Batavia and Geneva high schools – with the help of members from The Orion Ensemble – visit www.orionensemble.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 630-628-9591.