From the Trenches: All-Star Orchestra

Mike Lawson • Commentary • September 17, 2014

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World-class musicians and technology converge to support music education

What if it were possible to bring together the greatest classical musicians to perform and record the masterpieces of classical music? What if these world-class musicians could exploit new technologies to bring these great works to new audiences? What if these same musicians were to become musical guides, mentors, and teachers for a new generation of musicians, enthusiasts, and advocates? And what if one of the great conductors of our time were to lead the way?

Well that is exactly what has happened as a result of the vision and passion of the legendary Maestro Gerard Schwarz with the creation of the All-Star Orchestra, a modern variation of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on CBS. This time, they are not just for the young, and new technologies unleash the power to benefit from these first-rate musicians in your own music room.

The All-Star Orchestra was formed to:

  • Expand the audience for classical music, and
  • Bring music education to millions of people, including those who are not currently being exposed to this art form.

Maestro Schwarz’s All-Star Orchestra is comprised of top players from some of the country’s greatest orchestras including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Florida, Hartford, Houston, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Nashville, New Jersey, New York (the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the American Symphony, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra), Oregon, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, St Louis, Utah, the National Symphony of Washington D.C., and more. Together, these musicians perform on one stage under the leadership of Maestro Schwarz, who led the Seattle Symphony for 26 years and now serves as its Conductor Laureate. The orchestra came together in late August to record performances of some great works in New York.

However, these performances were not in front of an audience – they are created for the more than 20 high definition video cameras to capture the detail and nuance of each performance for use in a series of shows for PBS and – of equal importance – for educators, students, and enthusiast.

And this is the real magic of the All-Star Orchestra: creating a world-class platform to engage and inspire a new generation of music makers and music enthusiasts.

The educational component is at the heart of the All-Star Orchestra mission. Each potential audience (enthusiast, music educator, student) is carefully considered as part of the overall preparation for filming. Utilizing innovative video techniques that exploit new technologies for the delivery of educational content, viewers get not just a front row seat, but a seat inside the orchestra. Want to see just the first violist play Beethoven’s 5th? No problem! Focus just on Jauvon Gilliam’s (National Symphony) timpani work? David Kim’s (Philadelphia) role as concertmaster? Check and check.

To accomplish this, video footage from each taping is augmented with individual interviews and organized in digestible-size lessons made available for free via the Khan Academy, a free educational website ( that reaches 10 million students per month in 200 countries.

This is a watershed moment for our field. The collaboration between the All-Star Orchestra and the Khan Academy brings, for the first time, music education to this already widely visited website that teaches math, science, economics, humanities, and many other subjects.

The August taping included recording performances of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral showpiece “Scheherazade,” Richard Strauss’ orchestral autobiography “Ein Heldenleben,” the world premiere of Samuel Jones’ Violin Concerto with world-famous soloist Anne Akiko Myers performing on the legendary Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu, Mozart’s “Posthorn Serenade,” George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in the rarely heard original jazz-orchestra version from the 1924 premiere, and Aaron Copland’s 1925 jazz age classic “Music for the Theatre.”



More than 250 educational videos will be generated from the August performance recordings, as well as from additional interviews, instrument demonstrations, work analyses, guest lectures, “Within the Orchestra” segments, and Musical Literacy tutorials. These join some 75 lessons that have already been posted and are available for classroom use at

The initial music education offerings launched in June of this year cover three topics. The first, “Music Basics: Notes and Rhythm,” includes individual lessons about fundamental music structure. The second, “Masterpieces Old and New” has commentaries and analyses of standard classical repertoire such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” and Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé,” as well as new works by composers such as Augusta Read Thomas and Bernard Rands. The third topic is called “Instruments of the Orchestra” and has demonstrations of each instrument in the orchestra presented by principal players.

Music director Gerard Schwarz states, “I have such a strong belief in the power and importance of great music, and care so deeply about making it available to as many people as possible. Our goal is to bring musical masterpieces to life through innovatively filmed performances by outstanding musicians from America’s top orchestras. The enthusiastic reception of the first season, and the Emmy and ASCAP awards, are confirmation of the importance of all of the incredibly hard work we have done, and the affirmation of its impact and reach.”

This is a moment where the promise of technology has been combined with the powerful content designed to use that technology for music education, providing us all with a glimpse of how music educators may use these new tools for the benefit of their students.

So, how might you use this in your music room? Email your thoughts to Look for the All-Star Orchestra on PBS in the spring of 2015.




Robert B. Morrison is the founder of Quadrant Arts Education Research, an arts education research and intelligence organization. In addition to other related pursuits in the field of arts education advocacy, Morrison has helped create, found, and run Music for All, the VH1 Save The Music Foundation, and, along with Richard Dreyfuss and the late Michael Kaman, the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation. He may be reached directly at

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