The mission of CommonWealth Orchestra Outreach Project: COOP is a symphonic ensemble with innovative performance practices and programming that represents and reflects a diverse American audience; that provides and/or supports education for youth by partnering with community-based programs and for audiences through engaging programming; that shares this mission through live, broadcast and digital engagement, to effect a change in audience attitudes toward the arts in order to build stronger, more equitable communities.
CommonWealth Orchestra performs art music which represents our current American demographic and reflects a value system based on equity, diversity, and just representation. Elements of COOP’s innovative approach include: a) new music which champion composers and ideas that are relevant today, b) educational outreach to underserved youth, c) concerts that are presented as revues, with stories, sketches, poetry and visuals that enhance and support the musical experience.
An example of a typical show is “Finding Our Voices,” which CommonWealth Orchestra performed in our first season from June 2019 through January 2020. The hour and a half show is scripted and designed as a call to order of the Board of Directors of CommonWealth Orchestra. After a few words of explanation on how to access the Program Blog and thanks to sponsors, the show began:
1) Call to Order of the “Meeting”
2) Opening Theme, short version
3) Director’s Monologue
4) Music interspersed with thematically appropriate poetry
5) Sketch with actors
6) Music interspersed with poetry
7) Closing Theme, long version
2) “Meeting” Adjourned
Eight pieces of music were performed, by two major American composers Charles Wakefield Cadman and Florence Price, and three local Massachusetts composers and two pieces by Latin American composers. The poetry was chosen to fit the music, such as by William Oandasan of the Yuki Indian Nation, Maya Angelou and Paul Laurence Dunbar (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) and Jose Marti. The comedic sketch was set against a piece of Silent Movie music and the audience response was overwhelmingly positive, finding the music to cover a wide range of emotions, and the poetry and sketch engaging to hold their interest throughout.
The history of the group starts with the vision of its Artistic Director, Lucinda Ellert. A graduate of Grinnell College and New England Conservatory, Ms. Ellert also once directed the Happy Feet Dance Orchestra which was a NEFA touring group. Ellert's approach to music has always been to champion the diversity of American music as being co-equal – that the artistic value of popular and symphonic forms of music are closer than we give credit and that there is underlying bias in our arts that closely matches racial and gender biases that have bedeviled Americans for generations. Classical music has always been a process of developing what is culturally available, creating new works with higher artistic values and America has the richest body of musical DNA ever in human history. So why then, do we continue to import our symphonic music from Europe instead of using what we already have? This is the soul of the vision CommonWealth Orchestra embodies – to perform music that is culturally relevant to who we are today and combine concerts with variety to create new performance values that are uniquely our own.
COOP is designed to fit the exigencies of modern American performance practices. We have two ways to do this: 1) We are touring. Our home base is in Lowell as being central to our performers and the infrastructure of rehearsal and office space we’ve established. But we take our shows to the people, because it makes sense to do so. 2) We are flexible. Once we’ve written a show, that remains pretty static in terms of instrumentation and technical needs. Show #1: “Finding Our Voices” is written for 10 musicians and 2 actors. Show #2: “Invitation to the Party” (currently being developed) is written for 20-24 musicians and 3 actors. As we go on to develop other shows, we will make them fit different formats, some small, some larger. This is particularly suitable for collaborators who want to work with us and needs musicians to fit their format, and suitable for presenters who have differing venue, audience and budgetary considerations.
We call ourselves a Home Grown Symphony Orchestra. But to be clear, we will never reject the deeply meaningful and powerful legacy of European classical symphonic repertoire. We revere the works of symphonic art we trained on and put in our decades of practice to play well. And when the demands of a particular show call for a European antecedent to add enlightenment to the program, we will perform it. Our quiet anarchy is about upsetting the established order, not destroying it. The soul of CommonWealth Orchestra Outreach Project is to fulfill the primary purpose of changing attitudes about the symphony orchestra; to create and establish a musical environment in which audiences can find themselves.