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Woman stands on stage of auditorium speaking to crowd with a hand held microphone.
Melanie Zeck, a reference librarian at the American Folklife Center, demonstrates the juba rhythm to a packed house at a National Philharmonic concert in 2023. Photograph by Elman Studio, used with permission of National Philharmonic.

Staff Spotlight: Melanie Zeck On Collaborating with National Philharmonic

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This guest post is by Melanie Zeck, one of our Reference Specialists at the American Folklife Center.

As the stage door opened, blindingly bright lights struck my eyes.  I strode over to the piano, sensing that the audience was following my every move.  At that moment, I   realized that no one—not even the orchestra members sharing the stage—had any idea what I was about to do. Like any musicologist worth their salt, I had researched the evening’s concert program thoroughly and was prepared to offer historical commentary on each of the pieces . . . but, this time, with a bit of flair.

On October 14, 2023, National Philharmonic opened its 2023-2024 season at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland. NatPhil, as it is commonly called, is known throughout the region for its unique approach to programming, often pairing traditional works by canonical composers, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven with those from living composers, such as James Lee III, and those who have called the DMV area home, such as George Walker.

This season, NatPhil announced a formal collaboration with the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center. Together, the two organizations launched a joint audience- and patron-development initiative that brings AFC holdings into dialog with the orchestra’s repertoire in order to provide cultural context.

Women in red shirt greets two people in lobby of auditorium.
Zeck greeting patrons at a National Philharmonic performance. Photograph by Elman Studio, used with permission of National Philharmonic.

As the initiative’s primary facilitator, I have three main tasks. First, I identify the folk idioms (e.g. dance rhythms, vernacular references, popular tunes) that underly the otherwise classical constructs (e.g. symphonies, concertos) on the program. Second, I match each idiom with relevant archival resources at the AFC while exploring the soundscape of each respective composer, noting the varied musical, cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions with which each would have been familiar. Third, I present my findings through a combination of preconcert lectures, trivia shows, intermission presentations, research workshops, exhibits, video content, and written annotations.

In the spirit of the season opener, I introduced myself, the initiative, and each piece from the stage.  But, to shake things up—especially considering this was an orchestra concert—I asked the audience to participate in my demonstrations of each folk idiom.

There we were—over 1200 people in the venue—stamping, patting, and clapping the juba rhythm used in the third section of Florence Price’s Concerto in One Movement for Piano. Experiential learning at its finest!  And this lesson will certainly come in handy, as NatPhil will close its season with one of Price’s symphonies—again featuring the juba rhythm.

The next event (February 10) promises to be just as invigorating!  An hour before the concert, I’m hosting an interactive listening session during which we will explore the tone painting in Valerie Coleman’s Phenomenal Woman. Scored for woodwind quintet and chamber orchestra, this six-movement instrumental piece portrays the accomplishments of both well-known and unnamed women through wordless musical depiction:

  1. Maya (poet Maya Angelou)
  2. Katherine (mathematician Katherine Johnson)
  3. Serena (tennis great Serena Williams)
  4. Caravana: To Immigrant Mothers
  5. Michelle (Former First Lady Michelle Obama)
  6. Claressa (Olympic boxer Claressa Shields)

To supplement the session, I’ll be introducing three archival collections:

·         National Visionary Leadership Project (which contains interviews with Angelou and Johnson)

·         Inauguration 2009 Sermons and Orations Project collection, 2008-2009 (which contains materials  created by the public in response to the 2009 election and inauguration of President Barack Obama and collected by the American Folklife Center)

·         StoryCorps collection (StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of their lives. The importance of role models—famous or familial—feature in many of the collection’s interviews).

Join us! And share the evening with your favorite young listener. “All Kids. All Free. All the Time.”

In the meantime, be sure to check out my program annotations and learn about the AFC’s resources I’ve consulted!

Comments (3)

  1. This is so interesting. Thank you.

    • Thanks for reading our blog!

  2. What a marvelous improvement on written program notes! Thanks for telling us about it.

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