Last month, Christophe Chagnard conducted his final performance with the Northwest Sinfonietta, a chamber orchestra he co-founded 24 years ago. The sinfonietta will continue performing, led by visiting conductors, but Christophe’s adieu was a significant moment.
I was there in the Rialto Theater that night. As Mozart’s music filled the auditorium, I thought back on my own experiences with the sinfonietta: planning and laughing and scheduling with Christophe, being paid in concert tickets for writing a book, keeping children out of the way of violin bows. I am grateful to Christophe, not only for his artistry but for allowing me and a bunch of kids to share in it.
I was an elementary music teacher and spare-time writer in 2005 when the sinfonietta decided to produce a children’s book. A board member called me to ask if I’d consider writing a story about orchestra music. I would work with a committee that included Christophe.
I thought about it. Music and writing – what was there not to like? And if these people had a vision for sharing music with children, then we were on the same side.
I had never worked with an orchestra conductor before, especially a French one, and at first I felt a little daunted. Christophe seemed dubious about my first draft of the book. I revised it. The second draft, he acknowledged, was “much improved.”
The final proofs, enhanced by Todd Larsen’s lively illustrations and graphic artist Scott Warfield’s vibrant color layout, were beautiful. Christophe and I both gave the nod, and “The Orchestra in the Living Room” went to press. It became a gift to music lovers and music learners.
That was not the end of the project. In 2007 and 2008 the sinfonietta produced “The Orchestra in the Living Room” as a children’s play. I rewrote the story as a stage script, and Christophe selected music for some of the sinfonietta members to play. For the cast, we turned mainly to . . . my students.
I have to hand it to Christophe: He is willing to take risks. Fourth- and fifth-graders are prone to colds, stage fright and unpredictability.
The first year of the play, we learned by trial and error. The second year we were joined by an excellent director, Liz Jacobsen. She brought a new level of zest and visual appeal to the play, but it meant shaking things up a bit. The children were walking among the musicians, holding umbrellas over them and dashing across the stage.
“The musicians are concerned about poking the children with their bows,” Christophe told Liz and me.
So we made room for the children and the bows. Not all adults are willing to make room, physically and mentally, for youngsters. But the musicians were good sports, and they were part of an orchestra that valued children’s musical growth. Soon the musicians were smiling at the students in rehearsal, talking with them and remarking among themselves that these were good kids.
Those performances were seven and eight years ago, and I remain grateful for what my students experienced. As orchestra music swirled around them, they discovered they liked Mozart and Bartok. They stood on professional stages at the Pantages and the Rialto, quelled their nerves and spoke up. They felt the glare of the stage lights and heard a real audience applaud them. They were on a first-name basis with a maestro, and the maestro was part of the fun.
Last month, after Christophe’s final Tacoma concert, the sinfonietta hosted a farewell party for him in the lobby of Pantages. There it was announced that the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation has established the Christophe Chagnard Scholarship Fund to assist young music students. Music will be passed between generations in Christophe’s name. It’s an honor he richly deserves.
Maestro Christophe Chagnard, for your 24 years of beautiful work, merci.
Connie Hampton Connally of Tacoma, one of six reader columnists who write for this page, is a former teacher of language arts and music. She is currently pursuing a master’s of fine arts in creative writing. Contact her through her blog at conniehamptonconnally.com or email her firstname.lastname@example.org.