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Posted on Sun, Nov 14, 2010 : 6:12 a.m.

Viva! Hallelujah! Access to the Arts bringing cultures in and Culture out

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

The wonderful University Musical Society people, walkie-talkies in hand, meet us as we step off our yellow school bus outside Hill Auditorium on a beautifully crisp Friday morning. We feel like honored VIPs as they lead our four busloads of elementary students, teachers, and parent chaperones in through the side door, down and around a long and winding handicapped ramp and onto the main floor of the auditorium. I do not know how they do it: getting 3,500 children from buses to seats in 20 minutes flat.

I gasp as I spy our usher’s seating chart. Across the very front section of the auditorium, in four big letters, is written the name of our school. They are giving us the whole front section, the orchestra section, on the main floor. As we snake into our seats, row by row, grade by grade, I feel like I have won at musical chairs to finally take my seat in the very center of the sixth row, and next to a very handsome (6-year-old) boy.

I could never afford such good seats for my family.

These UMS youth performances offer amazing access. Plus no one will shush us.

When the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan and their two guest youth singers from Texas take the stage, the children end their quiet games of jan ken pon and "Miss Mary Mack," and they naturally start bobbing in their cushy red velvet seats, springs creaking, singing and clapping along and erupting into exuberant (not polite) applause. My son, Little Brother, turns to the boy next to him and shouts above the applause, “Wow, that was awesome!”

The energy is infectious. The musicians occasionally break into a few steps of dance, the silver trim down their pants and pointy-toed boots syncopating the music. One singer starts crooning a love song directly to a little girl in the third row, another wiggles his eyebrows mischievously at a boy in the fourth. One musician walks out of the lights to the far edges of the stage so that the children on the sides can also see.

The director explains some of the songs in terms the children understand. For “Revolucion,” all he says is that Mexico had a revolution and became independent (like America) 100 years ago. The blazing violins smoking rosin explain the rest (one teacher remarked she half-expected the violins to burst into flames, the bows were going so fast). Viva! I cannot imagine that the ensemble’s regular evening performance for adults could possibly be better.

The big difference is that almost the whole school is here. Everyone has access. One can hear it as they later dismiss the students school by school. The arts are for everyone.

A few days later, my mom emails a video from the Random Acts of Culture Project sponsored by the Knight Foundation, in which 650 people from the Opera Company of Philadelphia and community choirs “snuck” into a Macy’s department store disguised as normal people and then suddenly burst into song, the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s Messiah. The idea of the project — from “Carmen” at the cosmetics counter to violinists and tango dancers at the airport — always wearing normal clothes and simply appearing and disappearing into the crowd — is to bring the arts out of the opera houses and to where the people are, to expose people who do not even know that they might like opera (that’s me, classical music education via Bugs Bunny). After each surprise performance appears the message, “You have just experienced a Random Act of Culture.”

My kids' response, "We should do that here."

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at, her blog at, and she can be reached at