As thousands of Spokane-area fourth-grade students streamed across the plush carpet of the historic Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Thursday, one child stopped, struck by his surroundings.
“This is so beautiful,” he said, gesturing at the building’s ornate art deco interior.
Forty-five years ago, Spokane Symphony viola player Dale Emery had a similar response.
“The thing that stood out to me was the incredible sound,” Emery said. “It was more exciting than a movie, which we’d also watched at that same theater.”
Emery’s early exposure to classical music, as well as his subsequent career, are the kinds of stories in which American orchestras are increasingly placing their hopes. After decades of declining attendance and funding, American symphonic orchestras are turning their efforts toward musical education and outreach in hopes of cultivating a new generation of connoisseurs.
The Spokane Symphony’s outreach and education efforts started in the early 2000s, predating the nationwide decline in orchestra attendance, said Janet Napoles, the Spokane Symphony’s manager of education programs.
“The thought is that they need to be relevant to the community with their programming, and one of the best things to make an orchestra valuable is through their education programs,” Napoles said.
In 1972, Emery visited the Fox Theater with his fourth-grade Hamblen Elementary class. Emery was visiting as part of the annual Fourth Grade Concerts program, although at that time it went by a different name. The annual outing brings fourth-graders from the Spokane area to the Fox Theater to listen to the Spokane Symphony perform.
“I just remember that was what really got me excited about violins and music,” Emery said.
That trip started Emery down the path of music. He has played with the Spokane Symphony since 1981, when he was a freshman at Eastern Washington University. In 1985, he auditioned for, and won, a permanent position with the orchestra.
“But yeah, that was what really got me so excited,” he said. “The live music was just the most incredible thing I’d ever heard.”
Emery’s story illustrates the importance of the Fourth Grade Concert series, Napoles said.
“A lot of teachers tell me this is the first time the kids have been here and it might be the only time,” she said.
Symphony orchestras are an increasingly rare amenity in American cities, with many filing for bankruptcy following the 2008 recession.
In 2014, there were about 1,200 orchestras throughout the United States, according to a study commissioned by the League of American Orchestras. Attendance at those orchestras declined nearly 11 percent between 2010 and 2014.
What’s more, symphony orchestra fans are mostly older and mostly white, as are symphony performers. In 2016, the Washington Post reported that 85 percent of American orchestra players were Caucasian; 8 percent Asian and less than 2 percent African-American.
For Spokane Symphony assistant conductor Jorge Luis Uzcátegui, programs like the Fourth Grade Concerts are the best way to keep symphonic orchestras relevant and viable.
“As members of a symphony orchestra we have to understand that we have to give in order to receive,” he said.
“When the community notices the role that a symphony orchestra takes, making sure all of these kids have access to this great type of music, they take notice,” he added.
Tamara Schupman a fourth-grade music teacher at Indian Trail Elementary, echoed Uzcátegui.
Schupman said that when she first started attending the Fourth Grade Concerts, she thought its importance was primarily one of musical exposure: showing kids what orchestra music was like and hopefully inspiring them to practice more diligently and attend more symphony performances.
But now she believes it helps show children how “extraordinary” it is to have a symphony, and a theater like the Fox, in their city, she said.
“For me over the years it has evolved from the strictly musical … to an issue of awareness,” she said.
In addition to the fourth-grade concert, the Spokane Symphony also teaches classical music to underserved Spokane Public Schools children through Music Innovates.
Uzcátegui said he believes that the democratization of symphonic music is the only way for orchestras to survive and thrive in the future.
If symphony orchestras, Spokane’s included, continue to do outreach and education they can “become the pride of the city,” he said.
“If symphony orchestras do not succeed that is because they did not try enough,” he said.
And while the music, traditions and norms of classical music may be ancient and hard for some to access, Emery said he believes classical orchestras do have one undeniable appeal. It’s an appeal he tries to teach to his music classes in the Mead School District, but it’s something he knows can only be appreciated by visiting a real, live concert.
“There is an energy about being in a room with that many people and everyone is there to watch one thing and that’s what is going on the stage,” he said. “Until they (students) actually go hear and see it all come together it doesn’t have the same impact.”
On Thursday, as 1,500 or so kids sat transfixed by the sweeping movements of Uzcátegui and the Spokane Symphony, the impact and appeal of classical music was on full display.