Local 5th-graders get a hip-hop introduction to the U.S. Constitution

The unique collaboration seemed to pay off for the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra.

Nearly 2,000 fifth-graders cheered and applauded Wednesday morning over three performances as a local hip-hop artist, backed by dozens of classically trained musicians, performed a selection from the smash hit musical, “Hamilton.”

“I am not throwing away my shot,” Casey Olinger, aka Casethejoint, rapped again and again, portraying a 19-year-old Alexander Hamilton, years before he’d help draft the Federalist Papers.

The worlds of rap, classical music and U.S. history collided Wednesday at the historic Five Flags Theater during the orchestra’s fifth-grade Arts Trek program. It marked the first time in the ensemble’s 60-year history that a hip-hop artist was featured as a soloist.

The students, hailing from 38 tri-state schools, received a 40-minute education about the history of the U.S. Constitution, with frequent musical interludes demonstrating the ways art can reflect the culture and news of the time.

“We wanted to celebrate some of those freedoms through music,” said Conductor William Intriligator. “Music that celebrates freedom of speech, freedom of religion, music that celebrates the abolition of (slavery), the 13th amendment, the equal rights of women. … It’s really directly tied into the fifth-grade curriculum so that it helps them meet their standards of learning.”

The orchestra moved from Hamilton to “Yankee Doodle,” a derogatory Revolutionary War-era tune that ultimately was co-opted by Americans and transformed into a source of national pride. The kids were asked to sing along.

“Awesome,” Intriligator said after the ear-splitting performance. “That was the loudest I have ever heard it. I love your energy.”

Other selections included themes on “The Simple Gifts,” a classic Shaker tune meant to reflect freedom of religion. The spiritual “Were You There” emphasized the abolition of slavery, while “Machine,” which was composed by a woman, showcased the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote.

“It wasn’t just about voting,” Intriligator told the children. “It was about treating women like equals.”

After the performance, Addison Schneider, a fifth-grader at Westview Elementary School in Platteville, Wis., said she enjoyed the show. She recently started to play the cello and enjoyed seeing her professional counterparts on stage.

“I liked it,” Addison said. “It was really cool how it was not just string instruments. It was like woodwinds and brass.”

Her classmate Laylaa Schuler also enjoyed the variety in performers.

“I liked how they changed the instruments so much and how it’s like really loud and all the instruments stand out,” Laylaa said.

Eleanor Bartsch serves as concertmaster for the orchestra. The first-chair violinist enjoys Arts Trek programming, which allows musicians to connect with third- and fifth-graders.

“It’s a very different energy in the room than a concert I would normally be a part of,” she said after the performance. “Having hundreds of fifth-graders totally brings an excitement to classical music that is not really there in a regular concert. … They’re very enthusiastic about the music and it kind of helps us to have a new outlook on a lot of these pieces.”

This isn’t Olinger’s first foray into kid-friendly performances. He often performs with children in local libraries, giving them a hands-on opportunity to craft their own beats and learn about the music industry.

It’s a nice way to “give back” as he gets older, Olinger said. And hip-hop is a great way to get kids interested in learning.

“It’s just a nice way of bridging the old with the contemporary,” he said. “Classic can still be innovative with hip-hop.”

Madalyn Mackey, education program manager with the orchestra, said fifth grade is a perfect time to work with local children. Many have just begun playing instruments or singing in choirs themselves.

Music is unique in its capacity to unite, Mackey said.

“There are so many divides that spring up over many things, but this truly is an art form that’s open to anybody,” she said. “It doesn’t matter your age or where you’re from or what your background is.”

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