John Jamison sat in the back of the gymnasium, waiting for the melody that more than 70 years ago moved his 4-year-old self to stand on his seat and conduct from his chair.
The conductor raised her arms and a hush fell over the audience. She released the downbeat, the strings raised their bows and the first notes of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” lilted over the audience of enthralled elementary school students.
This time Jamison remained seated, but by standing up for music in local schools, Jamison made Friday’s program by the Williamsburg Symphonia at Matoaka Elementary — and eight more like it — possible for hundreds of area elementary-schoolers.
“I don’t think a person’s life is complete without the enrichment of the arts,” Jamison said.
Music, he said, is the most universal of all the forms of arts — one that speaks to the human soul and rises from the gut — felt through the vibrations of the floorboards and expressed with every sway to the beat.
Jamison grew up singing songs around the piano with his mother, with the Purdue University marching band audible at their West Lafayette, Ind., home. He went on to lead his high school marching band as drum major, tour with the glee club as a Purdue undergraduate and sit in the audience of the Metropolitan Opera when it made a stop in town.
“So everywhere I was and went, there was music. … It became a part of me, and I it,” he said.
Though his career took him into the world of business and numbers – Jamison came to Williamsburg to be dean of William & Mary’s business school – the music never left him.
He made it his mission to share it with young children, and especially the piece that meant so much to him all those years ago.
“I think ‘Peter and the Wolf’ is what you ought to cut your teeth on,” Jamison said.
Prokofiev’s composition, which runs about 25 minutes and includes a narration, tells the story of a young boy and his interactions with a set of animal characters including a bird, a cat, a duck and the title canine. Each creature is paired with an instrument or family – like the strings – that speak up to portray the dramatic tale.
Jamison played the role of narrator when the Symphonia, a fixture in the community for more than 30 years, performed “Peter and the Wolf” in local schools six years ago.
He approached its executive director, Carolyn Keurajian, about presenting the program again this year, with the goal that every child coming up through school would have the chance to experience the piece once before graduating.
If she could make the arrangements, he would cover the cost.
“That just doesn’t happen every day,” Keurajian said, who was happy the Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools was open to the performers coming into schools.
In total, the concerts – which run through the end of the week – will reach all the WJCC elementary schools, plus Walsingham Academy, Williamsburg Christian Academy and Williamsburg Montessori School.
For the Symphonia, the performances are a way of coming full circle: The group was founded 31 years ago for the purpose of playing “Peter and the Wolf” to introduce youth to music.
“That’s how our whole organization started, so that’s why it’s very poignant that we’re doing it again,” Keurajian said.
“Peter and the Wolf” is a piece of the Symphonia’s education outreach programs as a whole, which include smaller “Meet the Musician” programs that bring four or five players into schools every year.
For elementary children who are considering to play an instrument, Keurajian said these are opportunities for them to get to know the different members of an orchestra.
And in “Peter and the Wolf,” each comes to life through the telling of the story.
At Matoaka, hands shot up at the chance to guess which instrument belonged to which character. The menacing French horns elicited gasps when it was revealed they represented the wolf, the triumphant sound of the trumpet brought cheers and the odd-looking bassoon wowed the group.
Playing music can also give children the chance to thrive who might not excel in other areas, Keurajian said.
Symphonia Music Director Janna Hymes imparted a similar message to the group of students Friday.
“When you play an instrument and you’re involved with music, it’s your own thing,” she told them, adding it is also a way to understand subjects from pop tunes to history, and a means of expression.
In an interview with WYDaily, she said she loves working with the children – “if you call this working.”
While she does not change how she conducts the players, she appreciates engaging with the students, many of whom might be hearing an orchestra for the first time, and seeing their faces light up at the experience.
As for Jamison, “Peter and the Wolf” remains the defining melody of his life.
“Peter’s song will never leave your mind,” he said, humming those iconic bars. “If you ever hear it once you’ll hear it for the rest of your lives. It makes a place for itself.”