What are the essential aspects of New Orleans? That is up for debate, of course, but I've been told many times that the foundation of the city's culture is built on architecture, food, and music.
I was spending time with a New Orleans tourism professional, and he remarked that when people visit New Orleans, they feel like they've been transported to a different time, and have trouble identifying what makes them feel that depth of history. My tourism friend claims it's because of the architecture (I'm hoping to sit down with one of the architects of the Lower 9th ward, but that's for a future post). Coming most recently from Boston, another great architectural city, the buildings here can be both beautiful and bizarre, with the layers of history evident in space and structure.
The food is phenomenal, and there are places to tantalize your tastebuds around every corner. New Orleans cuisine has a rich history and some very distinct (and delicious) flavors: http://www.neworleansonline.com/neworleans/cuisine/ – Incidentally, Emeril Lagasse, who has three restaurants in NOLA, is a musician! He was accepted to NEC for classical percussion, and decided to pursue a culinary career instead. This place really caters to my need for spice- they know how to make it hot!
Almost anywhere you go in the city you can hear live music. New Orleans, in my mind, is one of the last true bastions of live musical performance- it's everywhere! And it's good. Whenever I can, I bask in it like a cat in a puddle of sunshine. Day to day here, when I introduce myself as a musician, I frequently get asked what group I play with. Or where I play. The ingrained assumption is that when I say musician, I mean jazz musician. When I respond that I'm a composer, that is typically satisfactory. Jazz has composers too. If asked what I play, I say I played French Horn through high school. That sometimes brings a puzzled look- French Horns are not common in Jazz, only used rarely in some big band arrangements. I explain further that I played in a marching band, and that brings a look of recognition and excitement. "Which one??" The marching culture here is huge, matched only by the omnipresence of jazz. High schools will support and fund band programs so that their school is represented in the many parades and festivals throughout the year. Students are proud to be a part of these ensembles because of the prestige it brings them. Serious marching bands have a similar structure to an El Sistema inspired program: many hours of rehearsal everyday, high expectations of musical excellence, a sense of being a valued contributing member of a community, and a proud group identity. And, similar to an orchestra, there is no limit to the number of children who can play together.
When I say 'a music program', people hear 'jazz' or 'marching band'. Very few people assume I mean an orchestra. If an El Sistema inspired program takes root here in New Orleans, its music must be relevant to the community that it's in and its performance practice must be culturally recognizable. The program will have to resonate with the community it is intertwined with. There is always some flexibility of repertoire in Sistema programs, and local musics and folk traditions are utilized and incorporated into the core classical canon. I feel that any program in New Orleans will have to have a particularly innovative flexibility of curriculum- How can the experience of performing and listening to Beethoven feel like the Marsalis family? How can performing in an orchestra have the same prestige, visibility, and excitement as a marching band? And, most importantly, can they play at Mardi Gras?
Questions of the day:
How does the classical tradition fit into New Orleans's cultural identity?
What are the benefits of resonating with a community's existing musical traditions?
What are the benefits of introducing children to a musical tradition that is different than what they are familiar with?