SPHERE and RSO get in tune
Chris Brubeck wrote a song that Kim Pereira will have members of SPHERE perform.
Photo by Scott Mullin
Harmony in a musical composition arises when there are extra notes alongside the melody of a song. Separately they are one-dimensional but together they complement and enrich the other. The Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra and SPHERE, a non-profit organization that enriches the lives of adults with special needs, together have developed a harmonious relationship bringing music and positive change to all involved.
This special partnership began in 2014 when Kim Pereira came on as musical director of SPHERE’s performing-arts program. Her goal was to expand the already strong program, making musical education and appreciation an integral part. With a Master’s in education and 20 years experience teaching piano, she knew she wanted to share her love for music. “I wanted to spark a similar passion in the SPHERE members,” she says.
Pereira’s first initiative was forging a relationship with the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra. For the past two years, the RSO has generously donated tickets to its concerts to SPHERE members. Prior to an upcoming concert, RSO musicians visit SPHERE’s music and performing-arts program. The musicians demonstrate their instruments and explain the music. The result has been overwhelmingly positive. “The symphony can be intimidating, especially for adults with special needs,” Pereira says. “But the visits from the RSO helps members connect with the music.”
Continuing their collaboration, SPHERE and the RSO took the stage together last June at the SPHERE-tacular show. Joe Russo, a bassist in the RSO, composed an original piece entitled “Joy,” which featured SPHERE members on percussion and vocals and a brass quintet from the RSO. “There definitely was joy on the stage and a tremendous amount of pride,” says Pereira.
Pereira believed that the SPHERE members were capable of even more. “I really want to highlight their abilities, instead of their disabilities,” she says. With that in mind, in the spring of 2015, then–RSO executive director Larry Kopp applied for and subsequently was awarded a Getty Education and Community Investment Grant to further the partnership between RSO and SPHERE. The RSO was one of only 22 orchestras nationwide chosen for this prestigious award, which is selected by the League of American Orchestras.
The grant supports a three-pronged program: the continuation of visits by orchestra members, SPHERE member attendance to concerts, and a culminating performance. The RSO has commissioned Grammy-nominated composer Chris Brubeck to write a piece to be jointly performed by the entire RSO orchestra and SPHERE members. Although Kopp has since stepped down, current executive director Laurie Kenagy has embraced the vision with enthusiasm. “It’s very exciting,” she comments. “There’s no other orchestra in the country right now doing something like this.”
Creating an orchestral composition that includes adults with special needs was not without challenges. When first approached with the idea, Brubeck, who has distinguished himself as an innovative composer, was up for the task. He visited the performing-arts group and went through a few chord progressions and tested the members’ range. He was immediately impressed. “What really got to me,” Brubeck says, “is the way the music uplifted them.”
“Writing this piece has kind of been like playing a 3-D chess game,” Brubeck comments. His goal: to write a piece that will be accessible to all SPHERE members yet still challenge them, that will be fulfilling to the RSO musicians, and that will move and inspire the audience.
Rehearsals have continued through summer in preparation for the RSO opening concert, which will be led by guest conductor Barbara Yehr, music director of the Greenwich Village Orchestra. Yehr, a talented conductor who has led renowned orchestras around the world, also has a Master’s in music therapy. “Having Barbara, who is so familiar with working with individuals with disabilities, is really going to make it special,” says Kenagy.
The benefits of this collaboration for SPHERE members are obvious. “There is immediate emotional feedback from the members,” Pereira says. RSO members have profited as well. “Every RSO musician involved has said how special it is to share something with a population that wouldn’t normally attend our concerts or have access to this kind of music,” says Kenagy.
Brubeck has titled his piece “Sphere of Influence” because he says, “So many elements of what the SPHERE members brought to the table influenced how I approached the composition.” The concert itself is called A World of Possibility, a fitting name as the collaboration of these two groups truly demonstrates the world of possibilities for these community members.