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Music appreciation for couch potatoes

Discovery Concerts, airing on PBS, teach audiences how to listen to classical music.

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Classical music in America is thriving. It is the audience that's vanishing. So say conductors and music teachers who believe we are hearing music, but we aren't listening.

"I go to schools and ask children if they have ever heard a classical music piece," says Barbara Barstow, creative director of the New Jersey Youth Symphony here and Conductor of the Symphonia. "They say no. Then I play the 'Can-Can' or 'William Tell Overture' for them, and every single hand goes up in recognition."

Mrs. Barstow gives a rueful smile, "They heard the 'Can-Can,' and they all started singing the Shoprite commercial. They heard 'William Tell' and shouted out, 'Bugs Bunny!' "

According to those who run the state's largest music programs, people are more likely to associate the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor with Frankenstein or Boris Karloff than J.S. Bach. If you mention "Carmina Burana" or its German composer Carl Orff, blank stares ensue until you mention "Conan the Barbarian," or any hack-and-slash sword scene set to one snippet of the piece.

PBS, together with conductor George Marriner Maull, music director of the Philharmonic Orchestra of New Jersey, say they have a solution. The Discovery Concert Series of interactive music-appreciation events is attempting to extricate classical performances from the miasma of modern life, where it plays second fiddle to everything from linguine to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Since it began last year, the concert series has proven to be a huge success, selling out months in advance, according to Mr. Maull. Concerts take place in Newark at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and are aired on local and, increasingly, national PBS stations.

The concerts are interactive in the style of a college class in music theory and have covered pieces by Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, and Claude Debussy. The series examines entire pieces in a stop-and-start format wherein Maull explains movements and nuances to the audience, which follows along using special programs that contain diagrams, music passages, and other helpful tidbits.


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