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Desert Companion

The art of the matter

Andrew Kiraly“It was the first and best performance I’ve ever seen.” That’s what a grade-schooler wrote after attending one of the Las Vegas Philharmonic’s Youth Concert Series shows, an annual, five-day tear of concerts at The Smith Center that treats valley fourth- and fifth-graders to what is often their first taste of orchestral music — for many, their first soul-stirring communion with performed music as vigorous, vitalizing art. Other choice quotes from the thank-you notes written by these young listeners: “I dreamed we were at a forest.” “We stopped at a castle and went through the doors, then the conductor came out and they played magical songs.” “I felt like I was in heaven. You can just imagine it.” And you can just imagine these wide-eyed students filing out of the concert hall after the show, their minds all fizzing and crackling with new energies. The Youth Concert Series in January is just one facet of the Philharmonic’s educational outreach, which also includes a statewide concerto competition for young musicians and in-school master classes that have the Philharmonic’s musicians teaching kids how to shred on the violin and rock the tuba. The Philharmonic isn’t the only one thinking about young people. For its part, Nevada Ballet Theatre offers at-risk youth opportunities for balletic expression with its Future Dance program (p. 28) — dance courses for young people who might never be able to afford such classes otherwise. For those students who show exceptional promise, Nevada Ballet Theatre offers scholarships, and even takes on top-tier students as trainees. Meanwhile, The Smith Center is in the midst of its Any Given Child initiative. Backed by the expertise of The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the program seeks to plug our arts, cultural and performance organizations into our schools, creating a home-brewed arts education curriculum for thousands of students from kindergarten through eighth grade. On top of that, The Smith Center recently landed a grant from Disney to help five lower-income Clark County schools build theater programs.

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As students herd back to school this fall, countless traditions come with the season: buying the notebooks and backpacks, packing school lunches, peeling kids off the iPad for earlier bedtimes. Another, less happy tradition: bemoaning the state of arts education in public schools. It’s no secret that the Clark County School District isn’t exactly flush with cash, and in times of tight budgets (ahem, all the time in a state with a wobbly, three-legged table passing as a stable tax structure), art and music classes are often the first to go. Consider this portion of the program your standard battle cry for improving arts education funding. Because, whether you’re an idealist or a pragmatist, you’ve got to admit the catalytic power of the arts on youth: In addition to teaching them about truth and beauty and the radiant nobility of the human soul and all that, education in the arts has also been shown to prime those spongy minds for learning math and science as well. (I dimly suspect I might have a balanced checkbook today if only my trigonometry teacher had played piano.)

But what repeatedly struck me as we put together our annual fall culture guide was how many of our local arts organizations and institutions — in addition to, you know, doing their main thing creating beauty and keeping the radiant nobility of our souls humming at proper calibration — commit time and energy to entire programs dedicated to inspiring and teaching valley youth. Amid the tussle of the larger issue of properly funding schools to include courses in art, music and performance, these groups are the boots — or, rather, the ballet slippers and violin bows — on the ground in our community right now. They’re not just stimulating hungry young minds. They’re also creating tomorrow’s audiences and tomorrow’s performers — pretty important, wouldn’t you say, in a city with entertainment sizzling in its DNA? The show has just begun, but so what: Give them a standing ovation now.

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