by Mike Telin


As partFranz-Robert of The Cleveland Orchestra’s “Make Music!” educational week, guest conductor Robert Franz will lead the orchestra in a special family concert titled “Symphony Under the Sea” on Friday, March 8 at 7:00 pm in Severance Hall. The concert includes selections from Handel’s Water Music, Glière’s Russian Sailor Dance, Wagner’s Overture to Thee Flying Dutchman, Britten’s Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Sousa’s Hands Across the Sea and Menken & Beck’s suite from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Special guests will be the Singing Angels.


Just last week, Franz was named music director designate of the Windsor Symphony in addition to his posts as music director of the Boise Philharmonic and assistant conductor of the Houston Symphony. As well as receiving numerous honors for his work in education, Franz has authored his first children’s book with a CD entitled Stella’s Magical Musical Tour of America. The book, which Franz uses as a family concert theme, introduces children to classical music by incorporating various musical excerpts intertwined throughout the story of a girl’s journey in a hot air balloon. We spoke to him by telephone.


Mike Telin: Congratulations on your Cleveland Orchestra debut.


Robert Franz: Thank you, I’m very excited.


MT: Symphony Under the Sea, is this your creation?


RF: It is, it’s a program I’ve done in a number of places. And, that morning I’m doing an education concert called Symphony in the Clouds.


MT: Tell me about both programs.


RF: Symphony Under the Sea is obviously music from the sea, but it is also music from The Little Mermaid. About twenty years ago the Cincinnati Pops released an incredible CD of music from Disney films for choir and orchestra, Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid. So I started doing these programs a long time ago with high school choirs. I love doing it because it gives the high school kids an opportunity to sing with a professional orchestra.


MT: You’ll working with The Singing Angels.


RF: Yes, I’m looking forward to meeting them on Tuesday night.


MT: What led you to create the program?


RF: Two things really. First, I am always interested in figuring out how to pull together as many groups as possible and create that bridge with other organizations. Secondly, I really like the idea of students having an onstage experience with a professional orchestra. It changes them. I’ve done it so many times, and the constant is that kids leave the stage thinking “I never thought it would be like that!” It’s always bigger, louder, stronger and more visceral then they ever imagined it could be.


My family programming tends to be theme oriented. But, it’s not only for children. I think about these programs as a cross-generational experience so there is always some commentary that is more for the adults then the kids and vice versa. It really is nice because it’s not like parents and grandparents are taking their children because they have to, they actually have a great time as well. And you may not know this, but for family concerts I always dress in some sort of costume.


MT: OK, this sounds interesting. Tell me more.


RF: I never tell the orchestra or the audience what it’s going to be. For instance when I do these in Houston there’s usually a lot of blogging and Facebooking that goes on right before where kids are trying to guess what I’m going to be. It’s really super cute. There are only a few orchestra staff members who know, and we keep it hidden from the orchestra as well.


Last month I did an Aladdin concert and I was dressed as a genie, but I had a three by five foot rug around my waist, and I had fake legs so when I came in we put the house to black and there was a spotlight on me from the waist up and it looked like I was floating.


MT: That’s great!


RF: It was. I’ve been a chicken, an alien, a zillion different things.


MT: I want to hear more but I just want to be sure I can write about it.


RF: Oh sure, I’ll be wearing a costume, but you don’t have any idea what it is.


MT: Of course, and I’m not going to ask. So you floated in like a genie?


RF: I did. But I view these concerts as a way for kids and parents to experience some of the greatest music ever written. I also imagine that it’s me and my niece Stella who’s four years old playing and having a great time. That’s my mindset. I never use a script, but I have a rough idea of what I’m going to say.


MT: Tell me about the educational concert, Symphony in the Clouds.


RF: When I create programs for school-age kids, I always integrate them into the curriculum because I want kids to take what they are already studying and use that as a way to bring them into the world of music. I like to re-enforce what the teachers are teaching in the classroom so they feel like there’s a real connection to what they are coming to see. And, I think it engages the students when they realize they already know something that I’m talking about. They feel smarter, and of course when kids feel smarter they learn better.


MT: How do you integrate the discussion of clouds?


RF: I compare the three main layers of clouds, cirrus, altostratus and stratus, with high, middle and low pitch. This is going to be co-taught by Channel 3 News meteorologist Marcus Walter, the go-to expert for all things about clouds. He will come out and describe how the water cycle works and how it relates to the layers of clouds. Then I will describe how in each family of instruments the smaller ones are higher pitched, and the bigger ones are lower pitched and the middle are in the middle. Then the meteorologist returns and describes cumulonimbus clouds and how a storm forms. Then we perform music from Beethoven’s 6th symphony, the Britten and the Wagner, all pieces that describe storms.


MT: You usually stand outside and greet the kids as they are arriving.


RF: I do, and there are two reasons. One, it gives me a chance to connect with them and kind of gauge the energy of the morning. I can tell if they come in all hyped or sluggish and that helps me to figure out how I’m going to approach that situation from the stage. Two, the more they feel connected to me and members of the orchestra the more likely they are to be super attentive when they are in the hall, because it’s not just somebody they don’t know, but somebody they have a connection with on the stage.


MT: That could be a lot of kids to say hello to!


RF: I try to greet a third to a half of the audience and yes, it’s a lot of hellos but it’s awesome and I love it.


MT: I like how you write about these experiences on your blog, it was very interesting to read.


RF: I’m not sure how much you want to know, but I can tell you how I first started thinking about these things.


MT: Actually I would like to know.


MT: I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts, and they used to take us on tour all the time. I realized quickly that we had a hard time bridging the gap between us and the students we were playing for, who were not much younger then we were, but had no music background at all. So for two years after college in the early 1990’s through a rural residency program funded by the National Endowment of the Arts, I started to integrate music into the curriculums in Liberal, Kansas and Fitzgerald, Georgia.


When I got back to Winston-Salem, I was asked to lead a research project called the Bolton project. I was there for three years which were the test years. We integrated music into every part of the curriculum. We were interested in answering one question: if we had kids listen to music could we change how they think, without their playing instruments? And what happened was the kids developed a high level of active listening skills. It turns out that active listening is key to being a good reader. So our kids became great readers and of course they became great learners.


Ever since I’ve created educational programs that focus on active listening skills. I never say to the kids, how does this music make you feel, happy or sad? I always say what did you hear or can you listen for that. It’s always about understanding the sounds as opposed to the generic how does it make you feel?


When you think about education concerts on this level all of a sudden they become more interesting to the participants as well. You can ask any of the musicians in the Houston Symphony. No longer does everyone try to get out of the education concerts, they love doing them because they’re fun and we perform great music.


MT: You clearly separate your approaches to Family and Educational concerts.


RF: Yes I do. At education concerts I only program classical repertoire. But for Family concerts I often intermingle pop and classical pieces because it is more of an entertainment kind of thing. While there is some education going on, it really is family entertainment. The educational concerts are about classroom learning.


I do this with everything, not just education. But the question is not, what do I want to do, the question is, what do “they” need and how do they receive it? I let those two questions guide what I create.


One thing that I do is to train musicians to create education programs in the schools. Carl Topilow and I are great friends and I go the National Repertory Orchestra every summer and work with the musicians. I tell them that creating education programs isn’t about Oh! I want to play this piece for kids and then create a program around that. It’s about understanding where the kids are and then creating a program that fits into where they are.


All of my educational programs have been created with the involvement of teachers during some point of the process. These are either classroom teachers or specialists in an area. I ask them to tell me how this fits into what grade levels.


Last season in Houston I did a science of sound program, because in Houston they are studying the physics of sound in second grade, which I found impressive. So I decided it would be fun to do that program in Boise. I looked up the Idaho State Standards, and there’s not really a conversation about physics until fifth grade so I thought that I couldn’t do it. But I met with the science specialists for the state and the school system and explained what I was doing, and they were able to help maneuver the program through and it was a huge success. It turns out that the physics of sound is being taught, just in different areas that I couldn’t find. So we were able to work together and make it successful.


MT: But back to your blog, you really are a very good writer. I loved the article on the Ring cycle.


RF: Thank you and I’m glad someone is reading it. When I did the Ring Without Words, I put together my own and I did it backwards.


MT: No way!


RF: Yes, I told the story backwards, and writing the blog helped me to get the story going forward and then I was able to turn it around. So we started with Siegfried’s Funeral March and then we ended with the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla.


MT: How did you manage to keep everything straight in your head?


RF: I did write it out a few times, but the trick was not figuring what to say, but figuring out what not to say. So I had to be careful not to talk about the reason Brünnhilda was sitting on the rock too soon.


MT: What prompted you to do this? I mean, that really must have been a lot of work!


RF: I did have a Ring program that went forward, but two weeks before the performance I felt that something just wasn’t right. So one night I woke up and thought, I should just try this backwards, so I did. Musically it made sense, and the trajectory was more interesting. So I began to wonder if I could get away with telling the story backwards as well. Just like the Seinfeld show, that is what I modeled it on.


MT: That’s interesting, because our natural instinct would be to explain every character and why they got to where they are, but of course that would be forward.


RF: Exactly! What was funny is that people who know the Ring Cycle loved it because it was engaging to them. But for people who didn’t, the story makes no more sense forward then it does backward so it doesn’t really matter. Nobody lost anything!


MT: Exactly! What fun.



Published on March 5, 2013

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