Walking through the farmer's market by Goodwives last week on a really warm morning, I was surprised (and delighted) to see a group of young people with all manner of string instruments. They were setting up under a tent, on a very warm day, remember, chairs, music stands and all. Several adults, obviously parents, stood proudly in the shade, watching. A young lady holding a violin gathered them all together and shaped them up for a performance. The young lady was Jane Minnis, the string teacher at Darien High School. I had a moment or two with her before the Darien Summer Strings got down to business, with Miss Minnis "counting them in," and playing the first violin part along with the orchestra.
They opened with a brief medley of patriotic pieces, went on to "America Patrol," and old stalwarts, "The Caissons Go Rolling Along," and "Anchors Aweigh." Little by little a small crowd gathered. They then turned to more classical repertory, with pieces by Henry Purcell and Edvard Grieg. They played for about an hour in the midst of bustling market, to an appreciative audience, refreshing everyone with music on a pretty hot day.
The Summer Strings are a continuation of their study at the high school and middle school. They give at least one concert each week and sometimes two. It's one thing, after all, to sit in a classroom and play, another entirely to play for live audiences. Their engagements range widely. Recently they were asked to play at a Bridgeport Bluefish baseball game, opening the evening with "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America." (Just as a side note, the Bluefish organization provides many opportunities for local musicians and singers, including holding auditions for area singers to sing the national anthem.) Their repertory also includes lighter classics and "a lot of Broadway tunes from Rodgers and Hammerstein through pieces from the Disney musicals, something for everyone from little ones right on up."
The conductor and teacher, Jane Minnis, came to Darien as a teacher under the aegis of former music supervisor Richard Aronson, but she also is a graduate of Darien High School. She plays the violin, teaches the string instruments, and also is a harpist.
When we chatted on the phone, she mentioned that she, with her harp, had a wedding to play that afternoon. She came to Darien in 1984. She has a degree in music business from Manhattanville, and a graduate degree from NYU. In addition to the Summer Strings, she has a program for elementary school students, and they also perform. Her goal is to produce performing musicians on as professional a level as possible, and as I watched them that morning at the market, their seriousness as well as their enjoyment in the music-making showed in the smiles and the concentration.
If you see these young people around town, with their violins, violas and cellos, oh, and one double bass, stop and listen.
It was a treat to hear them, and very encouraging. Classical music needs support and exposure as never before, and groups like Darien Summer Strings are proof that it's not dying at all, quite the contrary.