Woog’s World: Staples Youth Concerts strike chord for generations of Westporters
Updated 6:47 am, Friday, February 19, 2016
As an elementary school student, Candi Massimino sat enthralled in the Staples High auditorium. Older musicians were presenting a Youth Concert, with talent and flair. She could not wait to be just like them.
A few years later, she was. At Staples she took voice classes, sang in George Weigle’s choir and played in jazz and Dixieland bands. One summer, she toured Poland with the chamber orchestra. “It was just like being in ‘Fame,’ ” she says, likening her public high school to the elite performing arts academy.
After graduating in 1978, she became a music educator. Today, Candi Innaco is an instrumental instructor at Staples, a band teacher at Saugatuck Elementary School — and one of the directors of the Youth Concert that, each year, inspires children just as she was inspired four decades ago. “I’m in my 31st year of giving back to a school system that gave me so much,” she says.
The most recent event took place earlier this year. As always, it combined superb musical virtuosity with creativity, showmanship and fun. And, as always, it featured a special, grab-the-kids-where-they-are-and-get-’em-excited theme.
This year it was “Music of the Americas.” As multi-media images filled the stage, a variety of performing groups introduced young Westporters to the joys of a cappella singing, jazz and symphonies, even Caribbean steel bands. Over the next two years, this “Global Music Odyssey” theme will travel around the planet.
“We want to show students that the arts have an important place in their lives,” Innaco says. “We hope students leave the concert with an experience that inspires them to follow their own arts journey, and develop lifelong learning.”
Many schools have to take youngsters far away to show them the power of music. Westport does it all in-house. Third- and fourth-graders attend one day; fifth- and sixth-graders come another.
The Youth Concert is a collaborative effort. Choral director Luke Rosenberg, band leader Nick Mariconda, orchestra teacher Adele Valovich and townwide music coordinator Tom Scavone — along with, of course, Innaco — spend nearly a year planning a morning filled with “wow”s.
“Kids today have a lot of multimedia experiences,” Innaco notes. “They’re used to Disney, TV and movies.” So the Staples music instructors have, in past years, developed themes like “Music of the Movies” (the orchestra played “Star Wars” music, with accompanying visuals), “Outer Space” (“Also Sprach Zarathustra”), “The History of American Music” (including an elementary school band), even “Video Games Music.”
This year’s concert ping-ponged from group to group. It opened with a traditional Kraos Indian melody. The a cappella choir added finger snapping to the non-traditional sounds. Then, as the symphonic band played “Rushmore: A Tribute to Freedom,” stunning footage of the mountain filled the screen.
The choir followed with a quieter Appalachian “Down in the Valley to Pray.” Then came the rousing “Orange Bowl March,” a sizzling jazz “Festival” piece, and more.
The concert ended with Phillip Phillips’ “Home.” All the kids knew it. But the song brought them “home,” with images flashing on screen of familiar Westport scenes. When the youngsters’ own schools were shown, they cheered wildly. (More interdisciplinary collaboration: Many of the photos were donated by the Staples Photography Club.)
In addition to visuals and music, Innaco and her colleagues create curriculum guides that elementary school teachers can use back at school. For example, they might join with language arts teachers, helping students write music to go along with a poetry assignment.
Everyone gets in the Youth Concert act. High school students man the lighting booths, creating powerful visual effects. Seniors Jimmy Ray Stagg and Zoe Fox became instructors themselves this year, teaching youngsters a Hawaiian chant, then helping them join the choir to perform it.
“It’s truly a ‘youth concert’ - for and by youth,” Innaco says proudly. “Before we start, it feels like a big gift box. Then we take the lid off, and inside are lots of surprises.”
A few days ago, Innaco sat in the balcony. As she looked done on the scene -risers filled with choirs and choruses; the stage packed with strings, woodwinds and brass; all the “little heads” of boys and girls excitedly waiting to hear the older musicians sing and play - she felt “glorious. Everyone was sharing a wonderful arts experience. It was all so unifying.”
Maybe a few years — or 30 — from now, another Candi Massimino Innaco will sit in that same Staples High School balcony. Maybe she will have produced her own Youth Concert. And maybe she will recall how inspired she was watching one many years earlier, in that same Staples auditorium, during the winter of 2016.