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The Power of Intergenerational Music-Making


Baker Purdon

The Presser Foundation


“Every child is an artist; the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.”

When famous painter Pablo Picasso said this, he critiqued the progressive stripping of creativity and freedom from a person’s life as they grow up. In an effort to solve this problem, a multi-year collaboration between the Commonwealth Youthchoirs (CYC) and the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia is exploring ways to leverage intergenerational music-making to impact the musical lives of their members and the Greater Philadelphia Area.

Intergenerational music-making refers to people from different age groups coming together to create and perform music. Promoting social cohesion and inclusivity, music-making can break down barriers and foster a sense of community by bringing together people from different age groups. It can also bridge the generational gap.

CYC, an organization with three programs (Keystone State Boychoir, Pennsylvania Girlchoir, and Find Your Instrument) that empowers more than 600 young people from across Philadelphia and the Greater Philadelphia region to find their voice, and the Mendelssohn Chorus, a choral ensemble that performs choral works of the past along with commissioning and premiering new works, were awarded a multi-year Special Projects grant from The Presser Foundation to explore ways their organizations can connect, collaborate, and commission new works highlighting the type of intergenerational music-making this joint initiative exemplifies.

This collaboration was launched with a concert featuring both choirs on a rotating concert program led by Dominick DiOrio, Artistic Director & Conductor of the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia, Elizabeth Parker and Frank Van Atta, Co-Artistic Directors of the Commonwealth Youthchoirs, and guest conductors Rollo Dilworth and Alysia Lee. Together, they commissioned poet Julie Flanders and composer Carlos Cordero to create a new work for the combined ensemble, We Are Waves. Cordero provided the following notes on the piece at the performance:

“In struggling to create a piece about pure joy amid so much chaos in the world, Julie and I wrote a piece about how people affect each other. We Are Waves explores the discovery and acknowledgment of our vulnerability and power. Whether we choose to love, brighten someone else’s day, or, sadly, hurt someone, or war and guns, it is always a choice. We can choose art, uplift each other, and not drown others to get ahead. We are all on these waters, and it’s up to us to make them a palace to live instead of surviving.

Elizabeth Parker had this to say about the importance and impact of intergenerational music-making;

“Researchers have found that young people need proximal and distal role models to build self-identity; essentially those who are closer to their everyday experience (proximal) and those who may live farther away from their experience (distal). Through intergenerational collaborations, Commonwealth Youthchoirs singers not only see who they might become in the Mendelssohn Chorus members they sing alongside, they also see themselves in Alysia Lee, Rollo Dilworth, Dominick DiOrio, Carlos Cordero, and Julie Flanders, who model what is possible for their futures. From my research, I’ve learned that adolescents long remember collaborations like this one as they retell their musical and self-identity development. These experiences build their strength, purpose, and sense of possibility. They also encourage lifelong and life-wide music-making, which is our aim for every singer in our program.”

Echoing the power and impact this work can have, DiOrio said:

“As I was sitting on stage yesterday [at the We Are Waves performance], I felt like I had a front-row seat to the future of our world. Seeing the joy in making music together, I temporarily forgot about everything in our society that can – as Carlos Cordero aptly said – spread harm or hatred. Choral music is a panacea for that world. Singing together teaches us empathy. It builds bridges. It reminds us that our perspective is not the only one. It encourages us to engage in discourse that allows us to become aware of and overcome our boundaries.”

Both organizations will continue this collaboration over the coming years. Next up, they will embark on a significant new commissioned work on climate justice from Philadelphia-based composer Melissa Dunphy. The text for this work will be created entirely from the words of the Commonwealth Youthchoirs singers as they explore what the climate crisis means for them and their futures.

I am excited to see what this collaboration yields going forward. Both organizations are impactful in their own rights – combined, they can create significant change and meaningfully influence the conversation around how and why music is valuable in our communities.

Bravi tutti to all involved, and if you haven’t yet, I highly encourage you to seek out the performances of both The Mendelssohn Chorus and Commonwealth Youthchoirs.

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Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia & Commonwealth Youthchoirs premiere We Are Waves by Carlos Cordero and Julie Flanders - Temple Performing Arts Center - March 2023

dominick smiling and looking out