By teaching violin at a Title I school, Rosemary Furniss is brightening the futures of both the students and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra
Rosemary Furniss, an internationally renowned violinist, began working with students soon after moving here with her husband, the Symphony’s Christopher Warren-Green.
The world-renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin is in a place that, in his advancing years, has become as familiar and vital to him as any concert hall—a classroom. It’s the late 1990s, and Menuhin is on camera, explaining his teaching methods to a female colleague wearing a coat and scarf. She’s a longtime student of his, and a teacher herself.
“Some catch on a little better than others,” Menuhin says, his hands bowing an imaginary violin.
“Of course, yeah,” the woman responds, nodding vigorously.
“But I hope they will all catch on.”
The 2000 BBC2 documentary Menuhin’s Children cuts to another scene. The camera focuses on a line of students in the classroom. A young boy in a blue sweater chins his violin. He’s learning to play pizzicato, plucking rather than bowing the strings. Menuhin’s not there. The woman is, but you don’t see her. You hear her voice—lilting, melodious, distinctly upper-class English. “Make the sound nice and ringing now.” The boy ascends the scale. “Like that.” One last, chiming note. “Much better,” she says. “Lovely!”
It’s eleven years later. On a crisp afternoon in early February, the woman—tall, blonde, as erect and graceful as an egret—emerges from a station wagon in front of Winterfield Elementary School in east Charlotte. She collects her violin case, greets an adult volunteer with a smile, and marches inside.
Her name is Rosemary Furniss. At fifty-four, she’s an artistic director and concertmaster for the London Chamber Orchestra, a well-established violin teacher, and one of the most respected violinists in the world. She began studying with Menuhin when she was seven, then at the Royal Academy of Music in her teens and the exclusive Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia as a young adult. Over a three-decade career as a professional violinist and teacher in England, Furniss has performed as a soloist with the Royal Philharmonic and Philharmonia orchestras, played on the soundtracks to numerous films, and taught students at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Royal College of Music.
Yet here she is, in Charlotte, teaching violin at a Title I school. The federal government directs extra funding to public schools where 40 percent or more of the student body is eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program designated for the poor. At Winterfield, nine of every ten students qualifies. Many of them know symphonic music only through movies, if at all. It’s where she wants to be.
“They’re really fabulous, wonderful children,” she says. “When the music is there, there just isn’t any thought of [economic] class or anything like that. You just see very warm children who want to learn.”
Furniss arrived here with her husband, Christopher Warren-Green, hired in 2009 from the London Chamber Orchestra to direct and conduct the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. He’s the CSO’s first resident conductor in nearly twenty years, and he was brought in not just to work on music but also to reignite the orchestra’s flagging influence in Charlotte through educational and other outreach programs.
Warren-Green and other symphony staff see the violin program at Winterfield, which began in 2007, as a model for how the CSO can capture the interest of a fresh audience. The symphony began supporting the program with money and instruments before his arrival, and now that he’s here, Warren-Green fully supports the idea of expanding it to other schools. That his wife is a brilliant violinist—one who happens to share her mentor Menuhin’s passion for teaching violin to underprivileged kids—was an unexpected gift.
Warren-Green, Furniss, and their eleven-year-old son moved in late May 2010, exchanging a 600-year-old cottage outside London for a south Charlotte colonial built in 1978. Furniss began working with the Winterfield students in the fall, coming by to teach them once every week or two and helping coordinate a joint concert with the CSO in January.
“I’m still amazed at the whole story,” she says, brightening into a broad grin that makes the lines around her eyes and mouth crinkle. “I really wasn’t looking for it at all. It kind of came out of the blue.”
Of course, the CSO isn’t supporting the Winterfield students for purely altruistic reasons. It’s trying to survive.
Symphonies fight a persistent current. With each passing decade, people stockpile entertainment options that keep them at home. Why go hear the symphony when you can conduct your own orchestra on a Wii? Over the last quarter century, the percentage of the U.S. population that attends classical music events has declined, the sharpest drop coming between 2002 and 2008, according to recent studies by the National Endowment for the Arts and League of American Orchestras. Plus, American orchestras aren’t like their state-funded European counterparts. Recessions turn flowing streams of cash donations into trickles. The Charlotte Symphony was struggling financially even before another recent blow: budget cuts that gutted public school music education programs that paid for field trips to hear the symphony.
It’s clear that the symphony can’t simply play concerts and expect people to show up with their checkbooks. So the CSO—like its counterparts in cities throughout the nation—is aggressively going where the people are, especially young people in fast-growing minority populations whose children may never have heard symphonic music before. The symphony is “not a place just for certain kinds of people,” Warren-Green says. “It’s for everyone.” Involvement with programs like Winterfield’s, he adds, is part of his goal to “change the face of the orchestra.” It’s the future. It’s where American symphony orchestras are going.
And it’s where Rosemary Furniss is headed now. Tonight, Winterfield’s violin students will perform in the school gym with Furniss and Alan Black, the Charlotte Symphony’s principal cellist. Furniss has come to Winterfield this afternoon for a dress rehearsal. She marches toward the music classroom, and one of the violin students, ten-year-old Allayah Parris, greets her in the hall.
“Hi, Ms. Rosemary!” Hug. Allayah starts telling a classmate about the film scores Furniss has contributed to. “She played on Twilight, The Dark Knight—it’s crazy!” Allayah turns back to Furniss. “I’ve been bragging about you!”
“I’ve been bragging about you as well!” Furniss replies. “I’ve been bragging about you a lot.”