Music is an integral part of most people’s lives, but for New Bedford Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Dave Prentiss, music has encompassed his entire being.

Growing up playing music for his school’s band with his five siblings, Prentiss has surrounded himself with classical music for almost his entire life. While he does not play any instruments professionally, Prentiss cultivated his love for classical music during his teenage and young adult years after taking a chance on works by the great composers Bach and Beethoven. 

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While working on his bachelor’s in philosophy from Assumption College and master’s in political science from Boston College, Prentiss immersed himself in symphonic melodies. He explored the world of classical music, both new and old, becoming an amateur connoisseur of the genre.

Prentiss joined the NBSO Board of Trustees in 1996 after receiving a recommendation from a friend as a symphonic music aficionado. And in 2008, Prentiss stepped up into the positions of president and CEO, where he quickly began the strategic planning process for the future of the organization, as well as orchestras and symphonic music as a whole. 

The NBSO is a historic nonprofit organization dedicated to the proposition that classical music can enrich and transform lives. While the NBSO’s mission has shifted since its origin in 1915, Prentiss reassures that its main philosophy will always be upheld, just through different means. Today, the NBSO is committed to expanding the educational programs offered to children in the South Coast region in an effort to further enrich the lives of youths and their families.

Along with his work with the NBSO, Prentiss has sat on many boards, advisory councils, and committees for nonprofits in the local community, including AHA!, the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, and New Bedford Ballet. He also teaches part time in the Political Science Department at  UMass Dartmouth and received a juris doctor degree from the New England School of Law.

Prentiss said he sees the musical potential in every person and child that comes through the NBSO’s many programs because “if you give a kid an instrument in fourth grade, who knows what will happen?”

New Bedford Light: What was it like growing up in Salem? Was there a big music scene there?

Dave Prentiss: The public school department back in my day was incredible. And so I had a free instrument and lessons. I started in fourth grade on clarinet, and in sixth grade, I had the biggest hands out of all the boys, so they asked me to play the bassoon. I grew up in a family of six kids, and we all took lessons from fourth grade through high school. We played in the orchestra and the jazz band, which was a massive part of my life. Now, full disclosure, I never got that good because I tended to goof off and never really practiced. I shouldn’t say that out loud, should I? But music was my social circle. My friends and I went on exchange trips to do concerts in different cities. So, it was just very formative for me. 

A couple of my sisters are very talented, so they became accomplished musicians, and we still play together sometimes. It goes to show you that if you give a kid an instrument in fourth grade, who knows what will happen? They may get to play in Carnegie Hall or just get a weekend visit with their siblings where they play music together.

I still play the bassoon as an amateur for fun with friends.

NBL: What sparked your love of classical music?

DP: It certainly wasn’t my playing, right? Ha. We can rule that out. But it is interesting when I look back, I was playing the music, but you know, just because you are playing the music doesn’t mean that you are really listening to it beyond rehearsals and concerts. But what happened to me was I was a junior in high school when I went to Salem public library — and of course, back then, they had these vast rows of vinyl albums and a classical music section. I was just curious, like: “What other kinds of classical music songs are there other than what we’re playing in the orchestra?” So, I took some Bach harpsichord concertos and started listening to them. And then I fell in love with them.

And then, in college, they used to do these CD clubs where you would sign up and get free CDs, and I started to collect them, along with vinyl albums. I got Beethoven’s complete piano concertos on vinyl and fell in love with them. And then I got Beethoven’s symphonies. 

I always viewed it as an adventure or a journey to explore. You go someplace to see a new thing. You go to New Hampshire to see the mountains or go to Boston to walk the Freedom Trail. In a way, all music is like that, including classical music, because there are so many composers, types, and styles within classical music. Learning new pieces and falling in love with them is just a lifelong adventure. And, of course, once you fall in love with them, you keep them. I listen to Beethoven’s five piano concertos all the time because of that first time in college. 

New Bedford Symphony Orchestra CEO David Prentiss speaking at symphony event. Credit: NBSO

NBL: Who is your favorite classical musician?

DP: In college, I fell in love with Glenn Gould, the pianist, because he played a lot of Bach, but on piano instead. And for some reason, I just fell in love with that concept. I still listen to Glenn Gould playing Bach constantly. 

I don’t know if it rises to the actual level of favorite musician because I don’t know if I view it that way. You know, I am in awe of all professional musicians. I am in awe of all NBSO musicians because they are talented and passionate and have so much fun and enjoyment while playing. The guest artists we bring in come from all around the world, playing in all these different cities, and you just marvel. Sometimes I have to make sure my mouth isn’t dropped open during the whole concert because the talent blows my mind. You think of all their work and passion to become who they are. 

But I am particularly fond of Glenn Gould because I discovered him in college. He was one of the first major artists that I really took notice of.

NBL: Who is your favorite classical composer? 

DP: That varies. I could do a riff on Tom Brady and say it is whichever composer I am listening to right now. But lately, it has been Jean Sibelius. I discovered them for myself just about four or five years ago. And they blew my mind. His symphonies are just incredible. In fact, I went running this morning, and I was listening to Sibelius’s symphonies. So he is my latest favorite composer, but with great names like Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach, I could hear them all day, and some days I do.

In the last few years, there has been a long overdue recognition of incredible women and Black composers, so I have been delving into those as a new adventure. Florence Price, Adolphus Hailstork, William Dawson, and William Grant Still; these composers who fought against so much discrimination and prejudice, the music they create is just a marvel.

NBL: How did you first get involved with the NBSO?

DP: It happened back in the 1990s. The board of trustees asked a friend of mine to join them, and he had no interest in classical music. He said, “Well, no, I don’t like classical music; it’s not my thing. But I have a friend Dave who likes it, so you should ask him.” So, as a second choice, they asked me to join the board of trustees, and I did. 

NBL: What have been your main goals with the NBSO, and what have you already accomplished?

DP: When I joined the board of trustees in the ’90s, I chaired a strategic planning process for the organization, which I think was pretty much the first one we did even though we had been around since 1915 — it was a very different orchestra back then with another mission, and it has evolved. 

That first strategic plan has really set the course. It comes down to the idea that we want to make as much music as possible in our community and at the highest quality possible. And that doesn’t mean just concerts. It means education. It means community engagement. It means partnerships and collaborations with other organizations. 

So I would say that the key thing of the NBSO’s vision of who it is and what it wants to do is that we want to make music in all those ways, not just one way. Not just the traditional go to a concert hall and hear a concert. That is fantastic, but that is narrow, and there are so many more possibilities, needs, and opportunities to make music in all these other ways. We have had a holistic approach to how a symphony orchestra can make music.

NBL: What inspired the NBSO’s holistic approach to exposing the public to classical music?

DP: It is interesting. It was back in the ’90s, so maybe you can claim we were ahead of our time because certainly, in the last 10 years, in the whole orchestra field, there has been a recognition that orchestras need to get out of their shells and take a broader view. And orchestras around the country are doing amazing things because of that. The way we got started, given my background of falling in love with classical music but never being that good at it, is the best thing that ever happened for the NBSO. If you have that talent and you pursue that path, it’s amazing, but it sets you into a traditional mindset, which maybe you can break out of later, but maybe not. I never had that traditional mindset, so from the beginning, I was like, “Yeah, I make music in the living room with my sisters, and that is great music. Why can’t we make music with kids and other organizations?” That idea, which resonated with the whole organization, has been the kernel of how we developed over all these years.

NBL: What does the NBSO do to make classical music more accessible to everyday people?

DP: Classical music has this image of being elitist, and I can’t say it is only an image. Classical music cultivated that for a long time; they viewed themselves as elitist and the best of the best. And they were proud of it. Classical music was one option if a person was trying to reach for something higher in life. But, of course, I don’t think people have that view anymore; in large part, classical music doesn’t have that view of itself anymore. Thank God. I personally could never view anything I am involved in as elitist, as that is just not how I think. 

The question of accessibility comes down to saying: “Hey! Classical music is music!” Sometimes when I tell people I work at a symphony orchestra or talk about classical music, they say, “Oh, I don’t know anything about that,” or “I don’t have knowledge of classical music, and therefore, I don’t listen to it.” One day I thought, I have never had a conversation with someone who said, “Oh, I don’t have any knowledge of rock and roll music, so I don’t listen to it.” I have never felt the need to read a book about a music genre before I listen to it. But for certain reasons, people have that view of classical music, and it’s not true! All you have to do is listen. 

The NBSO does a lot of things to introduce people to classical music. One is that for all of our education programs for kids, we make it fun. Having fun is essential. We have an incredibly talented education director, Terry Wolkowicz, who is creative and gifted. She knows how kids think and have fun. She can produce substantive, impactful, meaningful education programs that are also a lot of fun. When you introduce the music to kids that way, they will just like it. That is how we approach the younger generations. 

We also do a program called Musical Connections, which is mainly geared toward adults. It is based on the premise that classical music is music. We compare classical music to The Beatles, and you see these similarities between “Yesterday” and something that Dvorak wrote. We don’t do it in a pedantic, educational way. I don’t view it as education; I view it as connecting. You make connections, and then people recognize familiar patterns in classical music once they get past that first hurdle. We have had a lot of success with this program and others like it. 

The third way we make classical music accessible is through partnerships. For the Abolition Row Park opening ceremony, we had our violinists play a piece from Frederick Douglass’ grandson, Joseph Douglass, programs from his time as an accomplished concert violinist provided by a New Bedford Historical Society member. Obviously, that ceremony was about the park, the statue, and the incredible work that the historical society does, but to have the music as an accent to the whole thing was really cool, and I think people enjoyed it. 

Those are the three ways we expand classical music’s reach; we just want it to be a part of peoples’ lives. 

New Bedford Symphony Orchestra CEO David Prentiss giving a “Musical Connections” talk about classical music at Groundwork. Credit: NBSO

NBL: What do you see for the future of classical music?

DP: They haven’t asked me for my opinion lately, but I will give you mine. I appreciate you asking me. I think about it a lot, but mainly in the context of New Bedford because we want classical music and the NBSO to have a vibrant future in this community. Of course, you look at what other orchestras in the country are doing that you can learn from, but sometimes you see them do something and wish they would do it your way. Of course, I am biased sometimes. I do think about that. 

One aspect is the recognition that classical music is music. Which could be a slogan or something real and substantive, and of course, I am in favor of it being real and substantive because it is just the starting point. If you have that attitude, how do you present a concert, design an education program, or collaborate with other organizations? It expands the possibilities of what you can do. When I say classical music is music, it’s great music, just like rock is great music. All genres have great music in them. That is what I think is important.

The partnership-collaboration aspect is enormous for the future of classical music. In the old days, when there was the elitist cultural position on classical music, you could just open the concert hall doors, and people would stream in, but those days are gone. In a way, that is good because now, we have to earn our engagement with people. Partnering with other organizations makes both of us stronger.

The third thing is education for kids. I mentioned that growing up, I had this incredible opportunity to have music in my life, and we know for most kids now, that is not true. Some communities are still doing a great job with public education and access to music, but especially in cities, it is hard because of budget reallocations. They decide to spend money in different places, and usually, the arts get the short end of the stick. That is a travesty for kids and their families because there is so much enrichment you can have in life through music. It is certainly not good news for orchestras and other similar organizations because most adults who attend these concerts had music in their lives as kids. Not all, because some come to it later, but it is like a foreign language. If you are exposed to it as a kid, it is much easier than trying to learn as an adult. Having that openness to classical music is harder to find as kids are exposed less these days. Orchestras like us must be proactive and robust in making classical music pervasive again. Not like in the old days, but in a way, the effect will be the same. Kids and families will have the opportunity to hear and participate in this music, and some of them will say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” but a lot of them will say, “Wow, I like this; it’s fun,” and classical music becomes an important part of their lives. Having that broad proactive approach to classical music education in schools is critical for the future.

NBL: How has the culture of the classical music industry changed since you first got involved with the NBSO?

DP: The biggest thing has been the focus on racial equality and recognizing the vital role women musicians and composers had in the past and today. That has been exciting because it brings so much more good music, musicians, conductors, and composers into the playing field, where they deserve to be. We have done several concerts over the last few years focused on Black and women composers. Of course, we still play the usual suspects, too, because it is all great music and all great music deserves to be played. The orchestra field has definitely taken that seriously overall, so there are a lot of exciting new things happening because of that.

NBL: Has the organization changed how it functions since COVID?

DP: The pandemic was interesting in that we had to switch to a lot of online digital stuff. But, using digital and online delivery was something in our strategic plan before the pandemic; it was always a question of “do we have the time, money, and capacity to do it,” and the pandemic forced us to do it before we expected to. It wasn’t a foreign, new thing to us. 

With being unable to do most things, we now had plenty of time to work on online things — so we did. We did full symphony concerts online. It wasn’t like going on Spotify. The music was made just for us, which was pretty emotional. The whole online digital delivery was accelerated because of that. It allowed us to learn a lot of things. Things to stop and things to keep doing after the world recovers from the pandemic. That includes not just concerts but education as well. We deliver a digital online component to almost everything educational we do now. In-person education is still essential and the best, but by supplementing it after we leave them in person, we can stay with them through their online presence until we see them in person. There used to be a gap, a few months or even a year, but now it is like, in the meantime, we have all these other sources we can provide to you. That, in some ways, is the biggest takeaway from what we learned from the pandemic. 

NBL: What age range does the NBSO work within its education programs?

DP: We start with pre-k kids. We have a pre-k music and literacy program. We launched a pilot program with New Bedford schools this past year. We are planning to expand it next year. 

Then, we have our most extensive core program, Learning in Concert, which is primarily aimed at third graders. It is a yearlong program. We go to the schools in the fall, return with classroom visits over the winter, and then bring them to the Zeiterion for a full orchestra concert in the spring. To have that yearlong engagement is pretty rare. Most orchestras are only able to do one thing a year. So we specifically designed it to have a more significant impact by going for the entire year. 

We also have programs for middle and high school kids. Free music lessons for New Bedford kids. We have a youth orchestra program that goes from elementary to college-age kids. Our vision is to have a strong presence in the lives of children and families from pre-k through 12. 

NBL: What are some of your favorite NBSO community programs?

DP: Now that’s a good question. We do a program called the Fanfare Program, where we partner with the organization Youth Opportunities Unlimited, and they do an after-school program for fifth graders. Our education director, Terry Wolkowicz, goes in for three sessions, and she teaches the kids about fanfares. Terry came up with the idea that many people deserve fanfare, so we teach the kids about the history of fanfare and their roles in society. Then we teach them how to compose a fanfare. So all these fifth graders compose a fanfare for someone important in their life that they think deserves one. They then write a proclamation on why this person is getting the fanfare, compose it, and present it at an event. It is the best part. 

It’s an event where all the families come, and each kid and their awardee get up; the kid reads the proclamation, everybody cries, and then we have a trumpet player from the symphony play the fanfare. It is incredible. We have done it a few times now, and it does so many important things, not just the musical education exposure but the connection between the kids and their families. We do it with Youth Opportunities Unlimited, and we are going to do it with schools in the future. All schools want family engagement, and an event like this can help achieve many important things. We are designing and modifying it right now to do it on a larger scale, and we are also going to make it available to other orchestras, schools, and organizations around the country because we think it is such a cool thing. 

And then, in the pre-k music and literacy program, we wrote a children’s book that helps kids learn the basics of literacy. We accompany it with a cello. Terry goes in and does six sessions with the kids, where they learn all new words. We use musical instruments and animal names to help understand syllables and stresses. At the end of the program, we have this event where all the kids and parents come together, and the kids show all the stuff they learned to their parents with a performance of the book with the cello. We give each kid a copy of the book at the end of the event. The parents are always so proud. The book is designed with a QR code, so parents can go online and use our online resources to continue these skills after the program. 

NBL: How can people get involved with the NBSO?

DP: We have a robust volunteer program. If anyone is interested in volunteering for the NBSO, they just have to call or email the office. Of course, one of the best ways to be involved with us is to go to our concerts and community events. Come by, say hi, and listen to some music.

NBL: How would you recommend people introduce themselves to classical music?

DP: The best place to start is the page on our website, Musical Connections. It’s a page we developed with Spotify playlists for the program. Each has an introduction with its connections with the world. One of the playlists is nature and birds, which is classical music inspired by both. … There are three types of people in the world: those who love classical music, those who listen to classical music occasionally, and those who don’t listen to classical music and don’t love it yet. The playlist approach with Musical Connections has gotten good responses from all three types of people.

Roxanne Hepburn is a correspondent for The New Bedford Light.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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