Typically, patrons see Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians play at Orchestra Hall in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood. On Feb. 9, the show is taking place in St. Hedwig Catholic Church. The more-than-100-year-old church’s arched nave is several stories high and decorated with paintings of Jesus and angels floating in a bright blue sky.
“It’s a beautiful place to come. You think you’re in heaven!” laughs Henry McCoy. He usually volunteers at the DSO, helping people find their seats. But tonight, he just came to watch. After all, the show is taking place in his neighborhood in Southwest Detroit.
“And I’m glad they brought this to us. A lot of people haven’t been exposed to this kind of culture of music,” says McCoy. “So, by exposing them to this music now they can become acclimated to attending more classic music concerts.”
Listen: Hear what the Detroit Symphony Orchestra sounds like inside St. Hedwig Catholic Church.
The event is part of the symphony’s concerted effort to better connect with Detroiters. Karisa Antonio, the director of social innovation at the DSO, says the organization held more than 80 listening sessions with community organizations to figure out its strategy on how to do that.
“We’ve heard a lot that people are very interested in multicultural musical experiences,” says Antonio. “They’re also really interested in and need things in the community where transportation is not a barrier and also where cost is not a barrier.”
This particular concert is free. Melvindale resident Victor Peralta brought his wife with him. He says they’ve always wanted to go to the symphony. “But we never had the chance to go, you know? Like I was tell my wife, this is beautiful opportunity for us to see it.”
More than half of Southwest Detroit’s residents are Hispanic/Latino. The program tonight is a potpourri of music but it includes some works by Latin American composers and Latino-centered narratives like the Disney movie “Coco.” One piece is about a cockfight at a fair that takes place in guest conductor Enrico Lopez-Yañez’s family’s Mexican hometown. Before the song is performed, Lopez-Yañez, principal pops conductor with the Nashville Symphony, tells the audience:
“There’s a very important part – it actually happens two times when the announcer of the fight turns and says, ‘De Viva Aguascalientes,’ and everyone responds, ‘Viva!’ So let’s try that now.”
“De Viva Aguascalientes,” Lopez-Yañez yells.
“Viva!” the audience roars.
During the song, dancers with the group Ballet Folklorico Moyocoyani Izel come out into the church’s aisleway in traditional dress. The women swish and swirl their white and purple skirts while men in sombreros step and stomp around them.
Lopez-Yanez, who spoke in both English and Spanish throughout the evening says, in addition to showcasing a little bit of Latino culture, he hopes the performance inspires the next generation of Latino musicians, conductors and composers.
“And that’s why things like this, going out to different communities, is so important I think to show them that not only they can be on stage, their music can be represented through an orchestra as performance,” says Lopez-Yañez, who in addition to conducting also plays and composes.
The DSO has been partnering with the City of Detroit’s Office of Arts, Culture and Entrepreneurship in its effort to reach Detroiters. Rochelle Riley, the director of arts and culture for the city, says the symphony has come a long way.
“I’m a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press and I wrote a column encouraging the symphony orchestra to be more responsive to including Detroiters in programming to make sure that it was the hometown symphony,” says Riley. “And years later, lo and behold, in response to that … I happen to be a member of the Detroit strategy task force that the symphony created to find ways to better serve Detroiters and better connect with different community groups around the city.”
The DSO says its next free community concert will be taking place at Greater Grace Temple in northwest Detroit in April.