Youth Concerts

Our Youth Concerts inspire 4,000 4th-6th graders each spring and serve schools from an 8-county radius.  These free concerts at the Gallagher-Bluedorn feature the full orchestra in creative and interactive programs. Local educators work with wcfsymphony to create materials that help teachers integrate the concert experience into their classroom curriculum.

The 2017 Youth Concerts will explore the magic of music through John Williams’ scores for the Harry Potter films and related pieces by Grieg, Mussorgsky, and Iowa composer Paul Alan Price-Brenner. Performances will take place on March 30, 2017 at 9:30 am, 11 am and 1 pm.

wcfsymphony Youth Concerts are made possible by generous grants from the Guernsey Charitable Foundation and Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa as well as funds and volunteer labor provided by members of Upbeat.

Classroom resources

Youth Concert audio files (zip with eight mp3s, also embedded for streaming below)
The concert experience for new audiences
What is an orchestra?

Additional educator resources

In the Hall of the Mountain King background and classroom exercises (BBC)
In the Hall of the Mountain King book and resources by ALlison Flannery and Vesper Stamper
Move It 2 segment on In the Hall of the Mountain King (DVD)
Night on Bare Mountain program note (LA Phil)
John Williams bio and background (Wikipedia)
John Williams interviews and features (NPR)
Musical analysis of Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter (Film Music Notes)


Magical Music

The 2017 wcfsymphony Youth Concerts introduce students to the magic of music through John Williams’ scores for the Harry Potter films and orchestral works by Edvard Grieg, Modest Mussorgsky and Iowa composer Paul Alan Price-Brenner. All of these piece draw on themes of sorcery and enchantment and utilize the full range of the modern symphonic orchestra to conjure those themes in sound. The concert will also explore the techniques and possibilities of storytelling in music, demonstrating how musical form can convey characters and stories from iconic narratives. wcfsymphony Artistic Director Jason Weinberger will bring his trademark verve and approachability to this wonderful cross-section of musical styles and stories while establishing strong connections between concepts fundamental to listening, reading and writing.

Stories in sound

This theme and the following topic areas form the core of our 2017 Youth Concerts curriculum, offering students the opportunity to learn not only about the instruments and sounds of the modern symphony orchestra but also to enhance and deepen their ongoing work in reading and storytelling. While most students’ understanding of the connection between music and narrative may be fairly topical, this performance aims to expose them to the many ways in which directional and/or sequential art like music, prose and aural storytelling share a variety of characteristics and techniques. Key aspects of narrative reading and writing will be emphasized and paired with their musical counterparts in Jason’s classroom visits and the orchestra’s live presentation.

John Williams’ music for Harry Potter and the works by Grieg, Mussorgsky, and Price-Brenner all present an opportnunity to follow sound narratively and learn about how it connects to characters, imagery and scenery. These are great questions for prompting students to think more deeply about musical substance and meaning, especially because narrative stimuli can serve as effective analogies for abstract musical ideas. Williams’ work is ideal for this purpose because its musical elements – tempo, instrumentation, and melodic invention – can be compared closely to the fictional (but very tangible) characters it portrays. If class formats allow, students could be encouraged to reverse the line of thinking and create their own written stories from the musical themes featured on this concert.

John Williams and film music

John Williams is arguably the most widely known composer writing for orchestra today. The main reason for the reach of his music is that most of it has been conceived for the dominant narrative form of our time, film. His output includes famous scores for series like Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter.

If students are not already reading J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels a review of their characters and basic story arc may be useful. The musical selections we will be performing (downloadable above and streaming below) are full of references to Harry’s character and his surroundings at Hogwarts. An excellent way to engage students in careful listening is to ask them to identify which specific sounds give the impression of narrative themes like sorcery, flying, and the films’ vivid characters.

One of the most interesting aspects of John Williams style is the extent to which he emulates musical ideas from earlier composers and fits them to the narratives of the films he scores. For example, the soaring outer sections of Harry’s Wondrous World draw on the broad, sweeping style of late nineteenth-century Romantic composers, while the festive brass music is indebted to Russian colorists and American modernists. Amazingly, Williams’ scores for Harry Potter turn what might easily have been a non-narrative pastiche of differing musical elements into a unified, story-like whole.

The Orchestra

The orchestra that students will see and hear in March is a product of the 19th century, when a variety of factors including industrial production of wind and brass instruments and an increasing formalization of the conductor’s role encouraged an explosion in the size and diversity of orchestral forces. In just a few decades prior to the career of our earliest composer, Grieg, the standard orchestra grew from a small number of strings with pairs of rudimentary winds and brass into a large ensemble with 30-plus player string sections balancing significantly larger wind and brass groups and an increasingly diverse percussion arsenal. The group for which Grieg and Mussorgsky wrote at the end of the 19th century was essentially a modern orchestra, passed on to contemporary composers like John Williams and Iowa’s Paul Alan Price-Brenner who use instrument groups in novel ways and combinations to create the impression of magical sound.

Classroom activities should include review of the orchestral instruments, their respective numbers in a modern orchestra, and their layout onstage. Jason’s school visits will offer students hands-on (and hands-up!) insight into the practical aspects of conducting a large symphonic ensemble and examples of how instruments make magical sounds.

The Concerto

Each year the winner of our Young Artist Concerto Competition performs with the orchestra on the Youth Concerts. While the specific concerto to be performed is unavailable at this time due to the scheduling of the competition and other factors, the concerto as a musical form is nonetheless worth reviewing with students. Among its connections to narrative: the typical baroque or classical concerto can be understood as a dialogue between two distinct character groups (the soloist and the orchestra) and during the 19th century concertos themselves became a kind of virtuoso theater. Furthermore, introducing the concerto to students as one of many musical forms offers a parallel to the diversity of narrative forms like prose, folk tales, and of course film.

The Music

Below are specific musical concepts from each piece that connect sound with magic, narrative, and character. Educators are encouraged to share these ideas with students as they listen to the concert repertoire in class.


Hedwig’s Theme opens the concert with its beguiling and magical theme. Ask students to describe the sound of the celeste’s melody and the gusts of violin ‘wind’ that seem blow around it. The middle section changes in tempo and meter and features the winds and brass instruments en masse – elements which should be introduced to students as they listen – before the movement moves on to a final climax.


Harry’s Wondrous World begins with a brief quote of the original Harry Potter theme from the prior movement. This technique of quoting and transforming earlier musical material in new contexts – called leitmotif – is a foundation of storytelling in music, and has been used by many composers including Williams to help listeners follow the narrative arc of characters, places and themes. Encourage students to identify the differences between the first appearance of the theme and its quote in this movement. Listen as well for the changes in orchestration: strings playing long, lush melodic lines, bright and energetic cascades of winds, brass and percussion, and finally the full orchestra march that will close the concert.


Dobby the House Elf is one of the most vivid characters from the entire Harry Potter series, undergoing humorous adventures first as a servant in the Malfoy household and later as a member of the Hogwarts staff. This movement starts mischievously in the lower woodwinds, after which Dobby’s various misadventures are portrayed in a series of episodes. Ask students to imagine what Dobby is doing in each of these sections, perhaps encouraging them to write a short story based on the music.


Chamber of Secrets is the most foreboding and spooky music featured on this concert. Williams shrewdly uses dynamics (soft at first, then building to frightening climaxes) and instrumentation (including the celeste from his original theme) to create the shadowy musical world of this episode in the Harry Potter series. The movement is also the only one featured on our concert set entirely in a minor key. Help students identify and articulate the difference between major and minor music and ask them to consider how those distinctions help tell stories in sound.


Aunt Margie’s Waltz is a short, spirited romp which describes an episode featuring Marjorie Dursley, an obnoxious muggle who unintentionally brings forth Harry’s magic with her offensiveness. Ask students to identify the meter of this music (3), typical of waltzes and many other traditional dance forms, and encourage them to describe how a seemingly elegant dance gradually comes off the rails (just as Marjorie does when she visits the home of her brother Vernon Dursley).


In the Hall of the Mountain King is one movement of Edvard Grieg’s music for a play of the same name by his Norwegian contemporary Henrik Ibsen. Grieg’s wife described the work as “witchery” and nowhere is that mood clearer than in this movement, which depicts Peer’s encounter with what the play describes as “a great crowd of troll courtiers, gnomes and goblins.” Much like Ravel’s famous Bolero, this piece repeats a simple melody a number of times, adding instruments and increasing dynamics and tempo to build suspense and intensity. Students can easily learn the melody and then be prompted to identify how Grieg transforms it through the piece.


Night on Bare Mountain is a fascinating piece of music, having evolved from several earlier projects by Mussorgsky before finally being arranged and completed after his death by his colleague Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The central theme of the piece is drawn from a Russian play called The Witches, and the cackling of a coven of sorceresses can be heard throughout the piece. The use of a foreboding staccato bass motif throughout echoes Grieg’s Mountain King music, while the swirling string swells and bravado brass fanfares directly influenced John Williams.


This year we are incredibly fortunate to be able to feature new work by a composer who lives right here in Iowa, Paul Alan Price-Brenner. Even more exciting is that fact that he wrote a magical piece just for this occasion! Emphasize for students that while many composers we encounter are long-deceased, much wonderful music is being written today all around us.

Price-Brenner explains how The Conjuring Wand explores, in sound, the experience of using a magical object: “The piece is divided into three sections – of which we will hear two on the Youth Concerts – each beginning with music depicting the casting of a spell. While the spells are not named, the musical descriptions in the score give the performers some idea as to what they are. Since that information is not shared with the audience, listeners are free to let their imaginations conjure the meaning of each spell!”