Candlelight Concert Society: Reaching Out to Kids, Reaching Out to a Community

  Eric Posner, Director of Bands and Music Dept. Chair at Atholton High School; Megan Hartten, Resource Teacher, Music for Howard County Public School ; Jessica Julin White, Executive Director of the Candlelight Concert Society; and Jeff Nelsen, Professor of Horn, Indiana University Bloomington.  Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

Eric Posner, Director of Bands and Music Dept. Chair at Atholton High School; Megan Hartten, Resource Teacher, Music for Howard County Public School; Jessica Julin White, Executive Director of the Candlelight Concert Society; and Jeff Nelsen, Professor of Horn, Indiana University Bloomington.  Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

Sometimes one thing leads to another; well, actually it always does.  OperaGene’s focus is definitely opera, but occasionally I attend other classical music events and write about those as well.  My interest in the Parker Quartet led me to a concert sponsored by the Candlelight Concert Society.  The concert was coupled with an entertaining lecture about the featured composers and their historical era.  I further learned that CCS not only sponsored the concert and lecture, but had arranged for the members of the Parker Quartet, while in town, to provide training to area middle school music students.  This community-centered outreach, especially for kids, intrigued me.  I asked CCS Executive Director Jessica Julin White if I could sit in on a future meeting of one of their incoming professional musicians with students.   Ms. White, a soprano who has sung professionally, suggested I attend a program arranged with French horn player, Jeff Nelsen.  CCS had planned for Mr. Nelsen to conduct a masterclass on the French Horn with high school and middle school students and to give a CandleKids concert. I have not trained in music, so I looked forward to observing a masterclass, and OperaGene’s purity was saved by the fact that the planned CandleKids concert also included mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen.  Things have a way of working out when you follow your genuine interests, which was one of Mr. Nelsen’s masterclass points.

Masterclass on the French Horn

Jeff Nelsen is a French horn virtuoso.  He didn’t decide to be a musician until college when someone who heard him play thanked him, and he realized  that he could give something to people by playing music.  He chose to initiate his professional career by securing a position with the Winnipeg Symphony in his native Canada at the end of his junior year of college (he chose to follow his genuine interests).  Since then he has traveled the globe and performed with dozens of orchestras, both symphonic and Broadway shows, and may be best known for the eight years he played with the well-known group, Canadian Brass.  Currently, he is Professor of Horn at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University Bloomington and President of the International Horn Society.  He possesses distinguished academic credentials, but when he introduces himself, his persona is definitely more that of a member of a band than a professor, confident as a result of his success and outgoing with an audience, but he comes across simply as a horn player you can learn with, more than from.  That trait and a quick sense of humor served him well in the February 23 masterclass he taught at Atholton High School in Howard County Maryland.  The students warmed to him quickly and he had their full attention.  Thus, out of respect and henceforth, I will refer to him as Jeff, instead of Mr. Nelsen though I’ve only just met him and formally should refer to him as Professor Nelsen.

An audience view at the masterclass and one of the students who volunteered to perform with Jeff Nelsen.  Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

The Band room at Atholton High has lockers on either side and on top are too many trophies to count.  Seated in the chairs were students from 12 area schools in all, as well as teachers, both public and private.  In opening remarks, Jessica noted that this is the 45th year of the Candlelight Concert Society and offered free tickets to Jeff’s CandleKids concert for those kids in the audience having a birthday.  Jeff began with brief comments about himself, then about the French Horn, its history and how it produces sound (the notes are closer together on the French horn than other instruments, making it easier to miss notes), proper posture, and how music is about tension and release.  He also talked about the art of performing, which he said begins when you step onto the stage: in the beginning, bow to the audience to show your appreciation and bow at the end, claiming what you did well and gave to the audience; be positive, it make’s everybody feel better.  Five students and one group had signed up to go to the front of the class to play with Jeff. First each student played a short piece.  Jeff’s initial question was always “What did you play well?”.  He never answered for a student.  He patiently pursued the question until the student narrowed down, sometimes to a single note, what they thought they did well.  His directing the students to focus on playing well, rather than avoiding mistakes, seemed to me a good lesson for musicians and not a bad life lesson.  Jeff then played along with each student; the student and audience could hear how their playing improved in the duet with Jeff.  Jeff discussed with the student how it was better.  Another lesson was to play the music, not the notes.  Jeff told the group that they will miss notes, and while they needed to work to correct errors that the goal was to play the music.  He also told them to give it your all, every time; it will become a habit.

 Group photo of the masterclass students. Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

Group photo of the masterclass students. Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

In closing remarks, Jeff took questions and talked about positioning of the lips on the horn and use of the hand to affect the sound from the horn.  Then the students participated in group photos.  Even this non-musician observer learned some things about the French horn and some valuable life lessons.  I was now primed for the concert.

Schools represented at the masterclass: Atholton High; Glenelg High; Ellicott Mills Middle; Dora Kennedy Montessori; Wilde Lake High; Oakland Mills High; Forest Ridge Elementary; Burleigh Manor Middle; Mt View Middle; Clarksville Middle; Glenwood Middle; Clemons Crossing Elementary.

CandleKids concert: Jeff Nelsen, French Horn, Nina Yoshida Nelsen, Mezzo-Soprano, with Joy Schreier, Piano

This concert, as many CCS events, was held in the Smith Theater on the campus of Howard County Community College.  I arrived early and took a seat to watch an audience of parents and kids arrive and get settled in.  I immediately developed an appreciation for the courage of the performers in facing an audience this young.  I’d guess the final audience approached two hundred members.  Most parents were chaperoning multiple kids and the kids were mainly 2-8 years old by my guess, a tough audience for maintaining attention.  And the audience was an active beehive until the show started and then only a very few kids found the chairs or the floors of greater interest than the show.  But for most in the audience, Jeff soon had them staring. 

 Joy Schreier, Nina Yoshida Nelsen, and Jeff Nelsen. Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

Joy Schreier, Nina Yoshida Nelsen, and Jeff Nelsen. Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

I didn’t mention it before, but Jeff also dabbles in magic and a French horn player who has some fingertips that are glowing with flame will get your attention.  Jeff held our attention during his first number “The Happy Blues” and then signaled for Ms. Schreier to play the piano.  As she did, a voice was heard in the back of the theater and walking down the aisle was a mezzo-soprano singing “Habenera”, the lead singer’s entrance aria, from the opera Carmen.  The audience’s eyes and ears were now wide open.  Nina Nelsen whose husband is Jeff had no problem maintaining attention of what had become a quiet and well-behaved crowd except for the enthusiastic clapping at the end of numbers.  Next, Jeff played themes from popular movies on his horn and asked the audience to guess the movies.  Then the group performed a piece with special meaning for the Nelsens, "Remembering the Future".  It had been composed by Ryan O'Connell, a student of Jeff’s around the time of their son's birth, based on stories and drawings, shown on a screen, by Brian Andreas.  The lyrics for the piece carry the message to love and embrace life.  After one more number, “Almost Time to Say Goodbye”, Ms. Schreier left the stage and it was time for the big finish, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.  The Nelsen’s seven-year old son walked up to the stage and took a seat at the piano.  We were all treated to the premiere of the Jeff Nelsen Trio – Jeff, Nina, and Rhys.  Rhys’ playing sounded perfect to me and the trio drew a well-deserved round of applause.  It may seem that there was no room left on the stage for additional charm and endearment, but then, Ms. White appeared on the stage with her three-year old daughter and the performers, joined by the audience, sang “Happy Birthday” to her.  Outside there were refreshments and treats for the kids.

 Rhys Nelsen, Nina Yoshida Nelsen, and Jeff Nelsen. Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

Rhys Nelsen, Nina Yoshida Nelsen, and Jeff Nelsen. Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

One can only guess what the impact of such an event might be on the kids who attended.  Maybe some will be inspired to sing or play music, or maybe to be fans of classical music.  How many saw themselves alongside Rhys at the piano or the grown-ups for that matter?  Parents struggle to find wholesome entertainment for their families, and I am certain that the parents appreciated having an event that provided 45 minutes of entertainment and exposure to live classical music at an extraordinary level of quality. There is also another aspect to an event like this that should not be overlooked.  This was caring people reaching out to others in their community through the sharing of music.  I have to believe that this message of love and caring by a community will influence the youngsters in attendance in a positive way beyond the impact of the music itself.

The Candlelight Concert Society

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CCS sponsors concerts, high quality chamber music concerts, for all and concerts specifically for young kids.  But that’s not all.  An Angell Foundation grant enables them to offer an array of outreach activities.  I’ve talked about the concerts, the lectures, and the masterclasses, but I haven’t mentioned their musical outreach to special populations, like elder care centers and medical facilities.  They are also planning some popup concerts at area malls and are considering a podcast program.  Local musicians are often used in these outreach efforts, thereby promoting their development.  One objective of these efforts is to increase the audience for classical music and to foster the interest of young people in music. However, it goes beyond that.  When I asked Executive Director White what she considered the prime directive for the Candlelight Concert Society, she replied, “Serving the community.” 

I came to know CCS as an organization that sponsors concerts.  Rather impersonal, right?  Well, for most performance companies we do tend to view them impersonally, or at best a company committed to art.  There is, however, a personal aspect to these organizations – people, not just people trying to earn a living, but people reaching out to share what they love with others.  And that motivation is worth fostering in yourself and your children. Take your family to a concert.  Music live and in person is so much more enriching than ear pods and screen time.

The Fan Experience: If you’d like to get a flavor of instruction by Jeff Nelsen, he has a popular Tedx talk you can view on Youtube titled “Fearless Performance”.

The CCS community right now is mainly Howard County, Maryland, with ventures into Baltimore County, but the concerts, both CCS and CandleKids are open to all.  I ventured all the way from Tysons Corner, VA.  The price is modest, the theater cozy with open seating, and the parking is free and convenient - a large deck across the street from the theater.  Attending a concert doesn’t get much easier.  The next CCS concert features the Calefax Reed Quintet on March 10 at 7 pm, with a special post-concert reception featuring the University of Rochester acapella group, the YellowJackets.