MOST KIDS who leave their hometowns after graduating high school and subsequently find some measure of success in their chosen field either A) stay gone for good, or B) return to their old stomping grounds as soon as they can — triumphant, and eager to make their mark in the place that groomed them for better things.
How unusual then, to find a group of hardworking 20-somethings who are keenly interested in improving one particular cultural aspect facet of this city, without actually moving back to the Coastal Empire.
That’s the peculiar and rather daunting modus operandi of MusicAlive! a promising non-profit organization formed by three acclaimed classical musicians who first took to their current profession as kids right here in Savannah.
Founded in 2005 by the award-winning orchestral bassist Joseph Conyers (who currently plays with both the Grand Rapids Symphony and the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra), and violinists Blake Espy and Catherine Miller (both of whom are currently members of south Florida’s New World Symphony), this unique and idealistic outfit seeks to fill a gap left by the dissolution of the Savannah Symphony.
To many in this community, that stated goal does sound a bit like a broken record, as a handful of other organizations in our area have been using that exact same terminology to explain their own impetus. They (and their supporters) have also been duking it out for a few years now (with varying degrees of civility) in what at times has seemed like a race of some sort to determine whose approach to fine arts music in Savannah will reign supreme.
Looking closer, however, one sees that MusicAlive!’s goals are more narrow than most of the other contenders on the same general front. For them, it’s primarily all about the children.
One of their main objectives is to “expose Savannah children to the joys of music making,” passing along to kids of this generation the torch that was handed to these college graduates in their own youth by both private instructors and members of the now-defunct symphony itself.
“When we grew up in Savannah, there were roll models who made music their full-time gig. Some of these incredibly dedicated musicians saw the importance of teaching and spreading their knowledge and wisdom with us! Now, we want to keep that energy going,” Conyers says.
“Since the demise of the symphony,” he continues, “the number of (student) string players making it to the All-State Orchestra has decreased tremendously. We at MusicAlive! are disheartened about this, and want to do everything in our power to assure that kids in Savannah are being presented the same opportunities we were.”
According to the bassist, it should not be a foregone conclusion that the youth of today are disinterested in classical music. It’s just that they’re constantly bombarded with ephemeral pop, rock, country and rap, and rarely —if ever— are shown how exhilarating fine art music can be to hear and play.
“The likely cause for this disinterest is that most children were not introduced to classical at an early enough age so they can have an appreciation for it,” Conyers says.
Espy points out that while a number of local groups are offering ticketed classical concerts on a regular basis, that’s a different thing from reaching out to students — especially disenfranchised or at-risk youth.
“I don’t know any other organization around whose primary goal is to excite kids about music,” the violinist submits. “We’re not just performing and then walking off stage. Our programs are built on interaction. Without an interested audience, we’re all wasting time up there. Our children’s concerts let us really get to know the audience and gives the audiences a chance to learn what we do for a living.”
According to Conyers, MusicAlive! hopes to hold their first-ever ticketed concert event sometime next June — which he promises will include some sort of unique twist that will help to set his group even further apart from what he intimates is perhaps a more staid view of presenting classical music.
“This genre of music has unfortunately been branded with a horrible stereotype, “ he explains. “Some kids, mostly the older ones, show little to no interest whatsoever in hearing or playing it. That’s why we especially like to work with younger kids who are a bit less influenced by modern trends and the (dreaded) ‘coolness factor’.”
Miller says that getting kids enthused about the wonders of classical music at a very early age is key to the art form surviving, not to mention thriving.
“The Savannah Symphony and its education programs played a major role in each of our lives. From the age of probably six until I left Savannah for Juillard, I was involved in Junior and Senior Strings, and the Savannah Symphony Civic Orchestra. I attended concerts by major soloists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Midori, Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, and many others,” says Miller.
“These were very special experiences. I would dream of making music my career while watching them perform in the Johnny Mercer Theater. Through playing music in Savannah, I met life-long friends, and learned a great deal about myself. We’d like for others to have the same opportunity.”
All the founders of this group acknowledge that their efforts were initially met with some measure of distrust from others in the local classical music field, but they say that MusicAlive! was never a threat of any sort to any other performance group — nor would they want it to be.
“We don’t even live in Savannah,” says Conyers. “How could we ‘take it over?’ It’s impossible for us to dominate this scene.”
“I think at first some people may have been misled about our purpose,” says Espy. “But at the moment, we don’t really overlap services with any organization in town. A big part of what we do is provide information to students about local organizations and teachers in the area — resources they could tap into once we leave.”
Conyers, who sees his group as uniquely poised to mend fences and promote cooperation, adds, “We have links to all the local classical groups on our website, and we encourage people to support all of them as best they can.”
Conyers says there’s a bigger issue than who’s leading the classical music charge.
“Focus instead should be put on whether the community is working together to sustain classical music. Who’s making sure classical concert events aren’t competing with each other in such a small market? How can the classical music organizations work alongside each other to provide a stronger product for the community? MusicAlive! can help bring all these facets together, starting with educating young people about the music,” says Conyers.
“For example, last June, we went to 14 different community centers all around town. I don’t know if there had ever been a classical music group play in any of them! (laughs) The kids got into it and if they never see something like that firsthand, why on earth would anyone ever expect them to be interested in it?” he asks.
He stresses the ancillary benefits of an early education in fine arts music.
“It helps you to experience things outside of your hometown. Even if the kids don’t wind up taking this on as an actual profession, they can take it on as a hobby through adulthood and learn about plenty of history and other cultures,” he says.
“I mean, it’s great that so many people in Savannah are enthused about soccer and football, but wouldn’t it be great if we had that same level of enthusiasm about our kids playing classical music?”
For this next run of shows, the group —including violist Jennifer Stumm and cellist Ryan Murphy— has put together a medley of holiday favorites, including selections from Handel’s Messiah.
Each event is open to the public.
“These performances are going to be a sort of ‘introduction to the string family,’” says Miller. “We’ll also talk about different styles of music, the role and function of each instrument, and musical techniques.”
Espy adds, “MusicAlive! isn’t a symphony, but we can bring our skills and experiences to the city in hopes of creating a buzz, and getting at least one child excited. If that happens, it’s all worth it.”
“As an added bonus,” chimes in Conyers, “the next Yo-Yo Ma, Isaac Stern or Edgar Meyer could all be in Savannah right now with their talent simply waiting to be discovered. Why deny them this?”
MusicAlive! plays: Mon. 7 pm at the Public Library (2002 Bull St.); Tue. 4 pm, at the Wilmington Island Public Library (125 Wilmington Island Rd.); Tue. 7 pm, at Ronald McDonald House (Bluffton, S.C.); Wednesday, Nov. 21, 4 pm, at the YMCA (6400 Habersham St.); and Wed., November 21, 6:30 pm, at the Hyatt Regency (2 West Bay St.). For more info, go to