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Boston Music Group Brings Classical Music To Teens In State Custody03:58
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A teen at a Youth Services center tries to conduct musicians from the Sarasa Chamber Music Ensemble. (Courtesy Bruce Mendelsohn)
A teen at a Youth Services center tries to conduct musicians from the Sarasa Chamber Music Ensemble. (Courtesy Bruce Mendelsohn)

On a recent morning, a teen living at the Metro Regional Center, a Department of Youth Services facility, nervously stood in front of a string quartet in a windowless recreation room. Trying his hand at conducting a group of classically trained musicians, he tentatively moved his hands like a conductor, setting the tempo for the musicians as they played Bach's “The Art of Fugue.”

His peers laughed in the background, while the musicians offered words of encouragement. When he got a better feel for the music, he began to dance, pointing his fingers up and down, bobbing his head and rolling his arms to the rhythm of the music.

“It kind of gave me a warm and kind of calm feeling and then as the tempo got a little bit higher it kind of gave me like a little adrenaline rush,” another teen said of the classical performance.

Officials asked us not to use any teens’ names, as many of them are minors. On this day, the teens were being visited by musicians from Sarasa, a Boston-based chamber ensemble.

Artistic Director Timothy Merton said he likes helping the teens talk about the music. “They don't have much contact with the outside while they're there. And certainly not with arts programs,” Merton said. He founded Sarasa about 20 years ago — originally a collective of musicians that has blossomed into a mission-driven organization with robust programming in venues that range from concert halls to correctional facilities.

The group now performs in youth service facilities about a dozen times a year.

For the teen, Sarasa taught him that he can listen to classical music to calm down when he is feeling angry. “I think it's a very good experience for the youth here,” he said. “Just to show culture that people aren't always exposed to and it's kind of like getting everyone to see other parts of cultures and kind of the diversity that the world has.”

Cellist Jennifer Morsches, who also serves as artistic director for Sarasa, said she has been to about 15 presentations at the youth centers. She said Sarasa prepares and plays at the facility with the same rigor as they would for a performance at a concert hall.

Sarasa incorporates presentations at youth facilities into its regular season. While there are usually two presentations a day that each last an hour, Sarasa also conducts two-hour long residencies at the facilities over the course of a week where the musicians encourage the teens to create songs or raps. The rap "God Bless Me" uses the backtrack of Dr. Dre's "Still Dre," a song that sounds like it uses classical instruments for the hook. The group recently received a Community Partner Award from the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services for their continued effort to bring arts into the facilities.

“It's always interesting to play because you never know how they're going to react … this past time ... we were playing Bach's "Art of the Fugue" and that's quite a complex piece, intellectual piece but they seemed to really react well to it,” Morsches said.

After the performance, the musicians invite the teens to describe the music and how it made them feel. One teen said “it was calm and intense and calm again.”

Later in the visit, violinist Rodolfo Richter played Krzysztof Penderecki’s "Cadenza" for a second group of teens. The teens perked up at the speed at which Richter played, seemingly with ease. One teen likened the piece to an old "Tom and Jerry" cartoon.

It’s these small, tender moments in a tough place that make Sarasa’s visits to the youth centers so meaningful. Here are teens, who in some ways have been hardened by life’s turns, awed by the sounds of a cartoon, revealing how much innocence they still possess.

Seeing the teens connect with the music reminds cellist Jennifer Morsches of her own discovery of classical music.

“That's where I learned much about classical music, watching 'Bugs Bunny,' ” Morsches said. “And a lot of people react, young kids, react that way. It's true and it does sound like Tom and Jerry chasing.”

As the musicians got ready to pack up, one teen asked if he could try playing the violin. Richter handed his bow and violin to him with one request: Just don’t drop it.

Richter showed the teen how to position the violin and bow before letting the teen try. As the notes emitted from the violin, the other teens began laughing.

Sarasa’s visit lasts an hour, but the musicians hope they’ve sparked a curiosity — and perhaps some joy — that will linger much longer.

This segment aired on January 2, 2019.

Related:

Cintia Lopez Arts Fellow
Cintia Lopez is a fellow for The ARTery, WBUR's arts and culture team.

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