“Azure” Concert Warms Hearts and Minds

Visiting musicians open doors to autism community through unique concert on MSU campus.

Pianist, composer, and organizer of Azure concerts Stephen Prutsman welcomes attendees and talks about the open and engaging format of the concert.
The Azure concert concluded with an invitation to all attendees to come on stage and engage with the artists and their instruments.
St. Lawrence String Quartet member Christopher Costanza introduces the cello to a young boy in attendance.
Stephen Prutsman plays along with children at the piano.
St. Lawrence String Quartet member Lesley Robertson demonstrates sounds from the viola for a young girl in attendance.
St. Lawrence String Quartet member Geoff Nuttall plays the violin for attendees who joined him on stage.

Although temperatures dipped near freezing outside, the atmosphere inside the MSU Fairchild Theatre was warm and inviting as a renowned pianist and string quartet played for a special group of parents and their kids.

In early April, pianist Stephen Prutsman and the internationally recognized St. Lawrence String Quartet were in town for the MSU College of Music Cello Plus Chamber Music Festival. As part of their visit, the group added a free, fun, and engaging performance for families with children on the autism spectrum. Musicians welcomed any and all behaviors, making the event accessible to audiences that typically find regular performances difficult to attend because of behaviors or sensory challenges.

“Making noise and moving around is not frowned upon, but embraced,” says Prutsman. “Our goal is to provide a setting where these kids and families can enjoy music in whatever way they enjoy it.”

Since 2012, Prutsman has organized “Azure Concerts”—or music-based events for the autism community. An Azure Concert, he explains, is typically an “add-on” to a scheduled performance and takes place during a dress rehearsal or other practice session. Local organizers reach out through community groups to recruit families interested in attending. The exclusive performance enables families and children to enjoy a musical performance in a casual and relaxed setting, as well as to interact with musicians or play an instrument.

“When you see that child engaging with someone, not melting down, developing a contact with music and sound, it brings tears to your eyes,” says Prutsman. “These concerts are all about those little wins and successes.”

The Azure Concert at the MSU Fairchild Theatre was the first in Michigan. Prutsman had mentioned the concept to Cello Plus event founder Suren Bagratuni who immediately arranged for Prutsman and the quartet to open the doors on their dress rehearsal. About a dozen families attended the 50-minute session, which included a short set and an invitation for children to come on stage to play or hear instruments up close.

“Steve gives us a great lesson on how to interact with these kids and the autism community,” says Bagratuni, professor of cello. “He showed how simple it can be to organize something like this.”

Prutsman drew from personal experience to develop the concept for Azure Concerts and to found the nonprofit Autism Fun Bay Area. His son, now 15, was diagnosed with autism at age 2. Prutsman and his wife soon discovered very few public events and environments were tailored for kids who display autism-related behaviors.

“We kept coming back to the same question: do we keep forcing it? That’s not fun,” says Prutsman. “So we decided to look at ways we could create environments where families are comfortable, and turned it into a brand called ‘Azure.’”

Prutsman attached Azure Concerts to his own performances, and recruited a network of artists willing to do the same. To date, he and volunteers have organized Azure events in the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, the Southwest, Minnesota, the East Coast, Canada, Bulgaria and Kosovo. About 15 Azure Concerts or events take place each year, ranging in size from 20 to 200 participants.

At MSU, Bagratuni says he hopes to encourage faculty, students, and other guest artists to host Azure Concerts for the autism community. He says the model is simple, and the concept profound.

Other recent initiatives undertaken by the College of Music to foster relationships with the autism community include the upcoming “Celebrating the Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life.” The weeklong festival will be held July 24-31, 2016 on the MSU Campus and is designed to give qualified advanced high school students on the autism spectrum a preview of a life in music.  

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