Cellist Evan Drachman, 44, and pianist Richard Dowling, 43, perform Camille Saint-Saën's The Swan in the cafeteria at Loma Heights Elementary School in Las Cruces, N.M., entertaining—and educating—an audience of 220 wide-eyed students, many of whom are getting their first taste of live classical music.
During the hour-long February performance, the musicians discuss each song and field questions from students. "Is this your real job?" asks one kid. "Do you have to practice a lot?" inquires another.
The musicians answer yes to both questions and then Drachman amazes his young audience by telling them about his instrument, a 283-year-old Stradivarius cello once used by his grandfather, famed Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.
The banter between the performers and students is an integral part of the concert, one of 200 performed this year by 21 world-class musicians in 19 states. The unique concert series is the mission of the nonprofit Piatigorsky Foundation, established by Drachman to bring live classical music to communities that otherwise might not have the opportunity to hear it.
The idea began in 1988 while Drachman was attending the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and was required to perform a recital. In preparation, he performed at a local retirement community and was overwhelmed by the audiences enthusiastic response. It was a defining moment in his career.
"I wanted to play concerts," Drachman recalls. "Rather than sit by the phone and wait, I'd rather go out and find audiences that wanted me."
In 1990, he created the New York-based Piatigorsky Foundation, naming the organization after his late grandfather, who believed that music should be enjoyed by everyone. "My grandfather urged his students to find ways to be useful musicians and human beings," says Drachman, of Owings Mills, Md. (pop. 20,193).
Since its inception, Drachman and other Piatigorsky Foundation musicians have performed nearly 2,400 concerts across the nation in venues such as retirement communities, libraries, churches and schools.
During a 2007 performance in Hulett, Wyo. (pop. 408), nearly half of the towns population turned out for a concert at the Hulett Schools gymnasium.
"We live in an extremely isolated environment, far from any cultural events," says Hulett resident Laura Lynn, who organized the event. "So hearing the Piatigorsky performers in concert playing world-class music is like serving a gourmet banquet of culture to one of the most remote communities in the lower United States."
Musicians are more than happy to take part. Pianist Lisa Bergman, of Seattle, has performed more than 70 concerts in her five years working with the foundation. She is gratified to play for small-town audiences. "They are all the more appreciative, because, for them, the concerts are a gift," she says.
Funding for concerts comes from private donors and grants. Most venues offer a contribution of about $250, but entrance to the concerts always is free.
While in Las Cruces, Drachman and Dowling performed four hour-long concerts.
"We enjoyed the performance as well as the sheer joy both musicians exuded while they were playing," says Ray Scroggins, who attended a concert at the Good Samaritan Las Cruces Village with his wife, Vi. The rest of the audience obviously did as well, judging from the multiple standing ovations.
That kind of response is what keeps musicians from the Piatigorsky Foundation moving from town to town, clocking 1,500 miles on an average tour and working for a fraction of what they would earn during a typical performance. "Artists thrive in this setting," Drachman says. "There aren't that many opportunities in this country that an artist can go to a new place and play 10 concerts to excited audiences."
"Plus," Drachman adds, "We get to spend our lives doing what we really, really love doing."