RPO presented first sensory-friendly concert Sunday 

click to enlarge The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra gave its first sensory-friendly concert on May 21, 2023 at Hochstein Performance Hall. - PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
  • PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
  • The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra gave its first sensory-friendly concert on May 21, 2023 at Hochstein Performance Hall.
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra presented its first-ever sensory-friendly concert at Hochstein Performance Hall on Sunday, May 21. From the beginning, it was clear this was going to be a different kind of orchestra experience. The environment at Hochstein was designed to accommodate those who have a sensory processing disorder, which can be present among those with learning disabilities.

This free performance was open to all, including audience members with special needs and young families. Concertgoers were encouraged to get up and move freely if they needed to, and a therapy dog was available just outside the concert hall. Noise reduction headphones were provided to those who wanted them, and the orchestra never played louder than “mezzo forte,” or medium-loud level. Unlike some bombastic orchestral performances, there were no sudden, upsetting sounds that could take listeners by surprise.

LISTEN: Daniel Kushner reported this story on WXXI AM, with sound from the performance >

RPO Music Director Andreas Delfs says that the sensory-friendly concert is about demonstrating the important role music plays in contributing to mental health.

“We want to contribute to the kinds of audiences that might not even come to our outdoor concerts, but need a special environment where they feel safe, where their special needs — whether it might be anxiety, PTSD, or any other condition that has something to do with mental wellness — plays a role,” Delfs said.

Sunday’s sensory-friendly concert is just one of 100 free events the RPO is putting on throughout the Greater Rochester community as part of its ‘100 Acts of Giving Back,’ coinciding with the orchestra’s centennial season.

Barbara Brown, the RPO’s vice president of education, said the pandemic quarantine inspired the organization to rethink how it engages with audiences.

“There's a group of people who may never feel completely comfortable or may never be completely able to make it to our concerts, pandemic or not,” she said.
click to enlarge Audience members and musicians alike wait for the start of the RPO's first sensory-friendly concert on May 21, 2023. - PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
  • PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
  • Audience members and musicians alike wait for the start of the RPO's first sensory-friendly concert on May 21, 2023.
On Sunday, the musicians played classical favorites and a Disney medley, including “The Blue Danube Waltz,” which was featured in Disney’s 1940 film “Fantasia.”

Bob and Pat Tobin brought young Tommy, who is non-verbal, to the concert.

“I think we enjoyed it quite a bit,” Bob said. “He had fun. He enjoyed the music. He sat through most of the whole thing, so that's great. He loved the polka.”

Mark Chang, who was there with his children, thought the concert was a great learning experience without being stressful for the kids.

“There is not really pressure about moving around and things like that, so that they can really learn how the orchestra works,” he said. “And so I think this should be more. I need more.”

One of his children, Ling, also enjoyed the concert, but had mixed feelings about the indoor-concert-hall setting. “I liked the music, he said. “It was really pretty, but it was kind of boring, because it was hard to sit still.”

As the RPO continues its outreach with free events, there will be more opportunities for the orchestra to meet listeners where they are. The next events in the “100 Acts of Giving Back” series are the Young Artist Auditions Winners Recital on July 9 at Eastman School of Music’s Kilbourn Hall and an “Instrument Petting Zoo” on July 13 at Brighton Memorial Library. For more info, go to rpo.org/100acts.

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
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