A SWEET Evening with the Symphony: Salty Cricket Composers Collective

Posted April 3, 2018 in
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Looking to liven up your Thursday evening? Attend A SWEET Celebration of SALTY Cricket on April 5, a benefit for local arts nonprofit Salty Cricket Composers Collective. The evening will be a bit offbeat and a bit whimsical, just like the organization. In addition to sampling treats and handcrafted cocktails from a dozen local sweets purveyors, attendees will listen to a performance by the students in the Jackson Elementary El Sistema program and music by other local performers. The price of your ticket will support Salty Cricket’s programs for young performers and local composers.

Salty Cricket Composers Collective is a local arts nonprofit founded in 2008 by Crystal Young-Otterstrom. It is now helmed by Executive Director Victoria Petro-Eschler and her husband, artistic director Nathaniel Eschler. Petro-Eschler elucidates the origins of the program, its metamorphosis throughout her tenure as Executive Director, and what she hopes to accomplish as the organization continues to grow.

Salty Cricket is strongly rooted in Western and contemporary classical music. As Petro-Eschler and I sit in the hallway to begin our interview, Nathaniel begins a lesson on composer Aaron Copland. Petro-Eschler says, “A lot of people think that composition is something that was done by candlelight when people wore powdered wigs. Composers are composing right now.” Kids in Salty Cricket’s K–12 program learn that composition is ongoing—and accessible to anyone. Salty Cricket furthers their mission through two main activities—their educational outreach program, which I am lucky enough to witness in action, and their concert development arm, which works with community ensembles to provide performance opportunities for a group of Utah-based composers. 

Though Salty Cricket has been around for 10 years, its educational program is only two and a half years old. “When we launched, we had enough money to be reckless and say, ‘Let’s do it,’ but not enough money to make it to the end of the year—and we made it!” says Petro-Eschler. The program has grown from 20 students its first year to almost 70, and now employs five staff members. The program runs 42 weeks a year, 16 hours a week.

The program is an orchestra-based setup built on the principles of the internationally recognized El Sistema model. Regarding the program’s aims, Petro-Eschler says, “With the positive social change we’re growing through music, we are giving these kids the chance to significantly interact with each other and have really significant cross-cultural exchange because the orchestra and music doesn’t care what your last name is or what you eat after school or any of that.”

El Sistema was founded in Venezuela 43 years ago, as slums and social problems began proliferating in tandem with accelerating wealth. “The idea is you can avoid negative social problems by involving kids in a rigorous activity like an orchestra,” says Petro-Eschler. Students in the program are put in a group orchestra from Day One, allowing students to develop their musical skills in a community setting, regardless of whether they have the money for private lessons. But the program aims to inculcate more than a love of music. “I love music, but I hope that I’m shaping future engineers, future lawyers, and future politicians, and doctors and accountants, and people who will understand that one, being part of a community and doing your best is important; two, creative problem-solving is possibly one of the most important things you can employ; and three, in order to achieve excellence, you have to demand a lot out of yourself.”

Photo: Kathryn Jones-Porter
Utah Symphony Violist Whittney Thomas sharing her knowledge and the richness of contemporary classical music in the El Sistema program. Photo: Kathryn Jones-Porter

The program’s aims are incredibly inspiring—but how do the Salty Cricket staff convince kids to get involved? I don’t know if I could’ve been convinced to practice cello on my Saturday mornings when I was a kid. Petro-Escher says there are two overlapping elements. “There is, on one level, just the self-gratification of learning something really hard—not everyone can do this, and that sets you apart,” she says. “But just as important is the gratification of contributing to the success of a group. “The orchestra operates just like any other community. If one person is slacking off, they can ruin the whole thing for everyone. But if we’re all working together and working well, we can achieve things that are really notable.”

The organization has taken many factors into consideration when planning its program, and the thought Petro-Eschler has put into each strategic decision is obvious when I talk to her. The educational program is located at Jackson Elementary to “eliminate barriers to entry,” she says. The school is a Title I school where almost every student qualifies for free or reduced lunch. “We center ourselves where transportation tends to be the hardest issue. We’re on a TRAX line so people can reach us by public transit.”

The educational program has more than tripled in size since its start and continues to grow, but it isn’t the only arm of the program that’s expanding. In the past, Salty Cricket has coordinated three to four performances of works by local composers each year, but in the upcoming year, they plan on sponsoring nine performances by nine different local ensembles. “We are also growing opportunities,” says Petro-Eschler. “We have a colloquium coming up; we’re looking at the possibility of doing composer exchanges. We’re getting Utah on the map.”

The organization has expanded the number of Utah-based composers it works with. This year, they are supporting more young composers and, in particular, more young-women composers than in the past. “Everyone always says music is for everyone, but they don’t realize there are actually huge gender disparities in music,” Petro-Eschler says. “Out of 150 national orchestras, five are conducted by women. Female composers represent 17 percent of the publication output. For us to see 16-year-old female composers showing up and being performed in our concerts, that’s a huge deal!” One of their most advanced performers, Petro-Eschler says, is a 13-year-old girl who just got waitlisted for the National Youth Orchestra.

Salty Cricket’s upcoming benefit event celebrates 10 years of growth and expansion. Along with the successful launch of the El Sistema program, “We are celebrating 10 consecutive years of performances by Utah-based composers,” Petro-Eschler says. Proceeds will directly support Salty Cricket’s programs—and help them continue along their upward trajectory.

Compositions by Salty Cricket composers will be played by nine local ensembles in the next year. To get updates on upcoming performances and watch videos of Salty Cricket’s music being performed, visit their website at saltycricket.org or follow them on Facebook at Salty Cricket Composers Collective. In addition to their 10thanniversary event, A SWEET Celebration of SALTY Cricket, the group hosts community concerts once a month on Saturdays. Their next Saturday with the Symphony will be on April 21 at 11:30 a.m. at Mary Jackson Elementary. It is free, and community members are welcome to attend.