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Nick Dobreff
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Virtual Youth Concert Expands Music Education Efforts With Themes Of Unity, Diversity, And Social Justice

Colorado Symphony debuts Lift Every Voice Virtual Youth Concerts featuring collaborations with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Fiesta Colorado Dance, Frankie Le’Troy, Omar Thomas, and Javier Flores

By Nick Dobreff

“Lift every voice and sing 
Till earth and heaven ring 
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty” 

"Lift Every Voice and Sing" – commonly referred to as the "Black national anthem" – is a hymn written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson in 1900 and set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, for the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birthday in 1905. A song of prayer and thanksgiving for faithfulness and freedom, it evokes imagery of the biblical Exodus from slavery to the freedom of the "promised land." 

We believe in the power of music to uplift, unite, and celebrate all people. In recent years, the Colorado Symphony has been among the national leaders in hosting community collaborations that are free to attend, exposing larger and more diverse audiences to the power of symphonic music. That includes annual collaborations with Denver’s Mexican Cultural Center on audience-favorite performances including Latin Beats: Sonidos de las Américas and the Denver Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission for the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tribute concert. 

These community performances regularly bring first-time symphony audiences into Boettcher Concert Hall, as do unique collaborations with world renowned artists including Cynthia Erivo, Kristin Chenoweth, Leslie Odom, Jr., Bobby McFerrin, and two 2020 performances of The Music of Selena featuring Isabel Marie Sánchez.

But the Colorado Symphony’s mission extends far beyond the walls of Boettcher Concert Hall. At the heart of that mission lies a profound commitment to furthering music education and outreach statewide, providing increased access to live symphonic music for a growing and more diverse audience than ever before. 

A vital aspect of this outreach comes in the form of the Colorado Symphony’s Youth Education programs, bringing young people into the concert hall and revealing new avenues of artistic expression, especially for those who normally may not have access to live symphonic music. 

But like so many events around the country, the 2019/20 Colorado Symphony season was abruptly halted in mid-March due to the onset and spread of the COVID-19 virus, which forced the postponement and cancellation of numerous concerts and events scheduled through the spring and summer, including the last month of the Colorado Symphony’s Youth Concert performances.

Despite the premature and abrupt conclusion, the Colorado Symphony’s Community Education Department still managed to generate record-setting numbers, welcoming nearly 25,300 students to Youth Concerts at Boettcher Concert Hall alone, compared to 16,436 during the 2018/19 season. 

While the continued presence of COVID-19 prevented the Colorado Symphony Association (CSA) from building on their record-breaking youth concert attendance from the 2019/20 season, it created an opportunity to reinvent the organization’s Youth Concert experience to meet the moment of our pandemic reality with a brand-new virtual concert experience. 

Taking inspiration from the anthem of hope from which it derives its name, the CSA developed their 2020/21 education curriculum around the theme of "Lift Every Voice", delivering a message of unity, social justice, and creative self-expression through an inclusive virtual concert experience featuring uplifting repertoire from a diverse array of composers and artistic performers.

Showcasing local talented artists alongside Colorado Symphony musicians and Resident Conductor Christopher Dragon, this unique concert program provides teachers with an arts-integrated curriculum designed to inspire 3rd - 12th grade students to find their voice through music and the arts. 

The youth concert’s musical soundtrack features compositions from legendary figures like Mozart and Beethoven as well as performances from composers like José Pablo Moncayo, Ernesto Lecuona, Florence B. Price, Duke Ellington and modern works by Anna Clyne and Omar Thomas. In addition, collaborations with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Fiesta Colorado Dance Company, spoken-word poet Franke Le’Troy, and visual artist Javier Flores elevate the youth concert experience in creative and profound ways. 

“In developing this virtual youth concert experience, our goal was to feature diverse repertoire and collaborations with local talented artists, allowing students to see, hear, and experience musicians and artists that reflect the diversity of our community” said Jesse Martinez, Director of Community Education for the Colorado Symphony Association.

Among the performances is Thomas’, “Of Our New Day Begun”, written to honor the nine lives lost to domestic terrorism on the evening of June 17, 2015 while worshipping in their beloved sanctuary, the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The piece is anchored by James and John Johnson’s, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and peppered with blues harmonies and melodies.

Vibrant and unforgettable dance performances by Fiesta Colorado Dance Company and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance add colorful expression and movement to the sounds of Ellington, Price, Monacayo, and Lecuona.   

Le’Troy, who hosts the hour-long youth concert performance, also performs an emotionally powerful spoken word duet with the orchestra on Beethoven’s hauntingly beautiful Allegretto from his Seventh Symphony.

“I think this is an awesome opportunity for our youth here in Denver, and anywhere where this curriculum will be shared, to be able to find their voice through the arts,” said Le’Troy. “What that means is they can find their voice in an area that’s positive, that’s safe, that’s constructive for them.” 

All performances were recorded with strict adherence to all CDC, state of Colorado, and city of Denver health and safety guidelines.  

The Lift Every Voice youth concert is supplemented by curriculum resources also developed by the CSA Education Department. These resources include two curriculum packets — one for grades 3-5 and one for grades 6-12 — with each containing three lessons centered around a theme: boldness, inspiration, and authenticity. These lessons are flexible, able to be done in person, hybrid, or online, ensuring the program is available to all students throughout the state. There’s also an online resource folder designed with teachers in mind that hosts grade-level readings, multimedia, worksheets, and supplemental resources from the Denver Public Library.

In an effort to highlight diverse artists in the classroom, the curriculum features over 6-hours of interviews from numerous youth concert collaborators who speak about what it means to be a living artist and touching upon their lives with themes of boldness, inspiration, and authenticity. Teachers can also schedule a virtual visit with any of these collaborative artists, allowing students to engage first-hand with a living artist.

“We have created an educational concert and curriculum that speaks to the times," added Martinez. "In the wake of COVID and our socio-political discourse in the country, the Lift Every Voice youth concert is an important and invaluable entry point for classrooms across Colorado to hear world-class symphonic music, celebrate our common human spirit, and receive a message of unity and creative self-expression. Despite all that we’ve had to face this past year, I am very proud of that we were able to produce and share an uplifting concert experience while empowering student voice through our curriculum as they grapple with these turbulent times.”

These youth education programs are made possible through generous community donations and support from local organizations including 2020/21 Youth Concert sponsor Genesee Mountain Foundation, the Schramm Family Foundation, and SCFD.

Moving forward, our goal is to provide programming that allows students and the community to not only experience the live sounds of symphonic music, but to see themselves in the music, in our musicians, and in Boettcher Concert Hall. That includes additional inclusive programming featuring bilingual performances, eclectic repertoire from an array of diverse composers, and outreach efforts that extend to every school district across the state.

In light of the challenges faced by so many during the COVID-19 health pandemic, the CSA is thrilled to share this spirited, thought provoking, and moving experience with students and families across Colorado.

“Whether it’s the music, the dance, the spoken word, I hope students are inspired by the art and that it lights some sort of artistic spark inside of them,” said Christopher Dragon, Resident Conductor for the Colorado Symphony. “No matter who you are or where you come from, I hope this shows that the arts are for everyone.”  

As the Colorado Symphony looks towards a bright future and the return of live concert events to Boettcher Concert Hall, the organization will continue striving to play a greater role in advancing music education and inspiring a new generation of musicians in Denver and across Colorado. 

To learn more about the Lift Every Voice Youth Concert, please click here.

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