By Erica Moser for The Day, December 15, 2023
Brad Balliett stood in the gym of Groton’s Subase Youth Center in front of a whiteboard with a picture of a bird Wednesday evening, explaining that the next song the quartet was going to play was one he wrote that he considers “to be a collaboration between me and the American oystercatcher.” He was inspired by the bird’s sounds.
Balliett, a bassoonist, and double bassist Evan Premo wrote some of the music performed Wednesday, and the group played a brand-new composition another composer wrote just for this occasion. That’s partially because there isn’t exactly a lot of music written for a quartet that includes a bassoon, bass, cello and French horn.
But what they love to do the most, Balliett said, is help other people write music for the first time ― something they have been doing with students in southeastern Connecticut this week.
Balliett, Premo, Laura Weiner and Claire Bryant are four of the musicians of Decoda, an artist-led collective and affiliate ensemble of Carnegie Hall with about 30 members total.
In addition to the interactive concert at the Subase Youth Center, the four have worked with students at Fitch High School and Waterford Country School this week, and will be going to Vista Life Innovations as part of the new Community Engagement Initiative from Musical Masterworks.
The Old Lyme-based nonprofit brought in Decoda musicians at no cost to the schools, thanks to a $19,400 grant from CT Humanities and then a $5,000 one from the Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust.
“It’s been an absolutely incredible experience from start to finish, working with Musical Masterworks as well as Decoda, and it has definitely inspired a lot of my students and opened their eyes up to what music can be outside of high school,” said Andrea Shabazian, director of bands at Fitch.
Musical Masterworks’ programming also includes two concerts in Old Lyme that are free and open to the public: an interactive family concert at Lymes’ Youth Services Bureau (59 Lyme St.) Saturday from 10 to 11 a.m., and a chamber music concert at Saint Ann’s Parish (82 Shore Road) Sunday from 2 to 3 p.m.
Managing director Wendy Hayes explained that Musical Masterworks has traditionally done chamber music series and some school assemblies.
She said the organization started thinking that, “We’d really like to give back to communities that don’t have the access or the means to get this kind of chamber music within their communities, and we wanted to make it a collaborative effort with the communities.”
After getting the grants, Hayes said she was wondering: Do musicians even do what Musical Masterworks was looking for? And through a conversation, she learned this is exactly what Decoda does.
“They’re teaching artists, so not only do they do high-level performance, but their mission is to go out and bring music into communities,” Hayes said. Balliett, who is co-artistic director with Bryant, said they love songwriting projects in hospitals and shelters, and have been focusing on correctional facilities in recent years.
Balliett said Decoda has focused this week primarily on the second of its three main objectives: chamber music performances, creative community performances, and training the next generation of teaching artists.
Marguerite Rauch, supervisory librarian from the Morale, Welfare and Recreation team at the Naval Submarine Base, said the Subase Youth Center concert started with a cold call she got from Hayes.
“It’s perfect, because we’re always trying to bring different kinds of cultural and educational opportunities to military families,” she said.
A few kids each showed up with a parent, and before the performance began, Weiner went over to 10-year-old Khloe Brown to explain how her French horn works.
Debra Glaspie said she brought her daughter Khloe, who recently started playing violin at Charles Barnum Elementary, and Glaspie wanted to expose her to other instruments. She thought this program was a good way to give back to the community and liked the opportunity for kids to touch the instruments.
And at the end of the hour-long concert and discussion, two other kids joined a holiday medley by playing jingle bells, right on cue.
Creating and refining compositions at schools
As for the schools, Hayes explained that Musical Masterworks wanted to do a residential program rather than just popping into a school to do an assembly. They decided on Fitch in part because of the diversity of the student body, demographically and economically.
Shabazian said Decoda worked with about 30 students from the concert band, jazz band, orchestra and percussion ensemble classes, in addition to five students from her Advanced Placement Music Theory class last year.
The AP Music Theory students wrote pieces for their composition unit last year, and when they got more information this year on Decoda’s visit, they tweaked their pieces based on the specific four instruments.
They got feedback from Decoda both before the ensemble’s visit and during, and they got to hear their compositions played by accomplished musicians rather than just through a computer. Shabazian said it was night and day from what they were used to, and “their smiles were from ear to ear.”
The work culminated in a concert Friday evening, with Decoda playing both its own music and the pieces from Fitch composers, and student musicians performing.
The programming at Waterford Country School is very different, since it is a small special education school that hasn’t had a music program. But Executive Director Chris Lacey said he hopes this program is “sort of a kickoff,” considering a new music teacher just started a few weeks ago.
“This isn’t the end for us,” Lacey said.
Whereas Decoda helped Fitch students with their pieces, Balliett said at Waterford Country School, “It’s more of a creative project,” helping 10 high-school-aged students write brand-new songs from scratch.
For instance, he said that Wednesday afternoon at the school, they wrote a song about the students’ passion for having a midnight snack.
Decoda will also be doing workshops Saturday at the Madison campus of Vista Life Innovations, which serves young adults with neurological disabilities. This will involve Decoda introducing its instruments, collaboratively creating music with the Vista community, and sharing the music in a small concert at the end.
IF YOU GO
What: Decoda concert
When: Saturday from 10 to 11 a.m. and Sunday from 2 to 3:30 p.m.
Where: Old Lyme ― Saturday at Lymes’ Youth Services Bureau (59 Lyme St.) and Sunday at Saint Ann’s Parish (82 Shore Road)