Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Youth Symphony's Spring Concert

Tuesday, April 28th, had been a busy day for the Harrisburg Youth Symphony Orchestra (usually abbreviated HYSO): they had a concert that morning at the Susquehanna Township Middle School, then a chance to sit in on a program with “Stuart & Friends” at Whitaker Center (you can read my earlier post about that here) plus two more school concerts that afternoon – at Upper Dauphin’s Middle & Elementary Schools in Elizabethville – before giving their own full “Spring Concert” that evening at the Forum.

So with all that going on during the day – when most professional musicians would want to “rest up” for that evening’s concert – I was surprised at the amount of energy they STILL had by 9:00 that night as they were hurrying out of the back stage area to meet their friends and parents. Of course, they’re teen-agers and bottling that energy has been something their parents and grandparents have been coveting for years, but I’m also speaking in terms of how well they played.

Despite some rough patches at the opening of the “Marriage of Figaro” Overture that opened the concert – it’s a very tricky opening with those soft, scurrying 16th notes everybody plays in unison, not the sort of thing you want to warm up on – but the overall impact of the whole program set in very quickly: they played with confidence and enthusiasm but most importantly with a sense of involvement that made me think classical music’s future is in pretty good hands. Looking around the orchestra, I saw faces of concentration and smiles of joy that, whether or not this is what they want to be doing “when they grow up,” this is what they wanted to be doing right now.

The first four players of the 1st Violin Section all stood up to play the first movement of a concerto Antonio Vivaldi had written for the children of the Venice orphanage where he was the teacher and conductor. So it’s very possible the original performers were the same age – or younger – than these. They each had their chance in the “spotlight” with equally challenging music to play. They also worked as a balanced group of four in front of the rest of the orchestra – along with the principal players of the viola, cello and bass sections who filled out a mini-orchestra within the whole group – but again it was that joy of playing the music that sold it to the audience.

A lot of the music relied on the orchestra’s string players but with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Folk Song Suite” and the ballet music from Gounod’s opera “Faust,” several of the woodwind players had a chance to shine as well.

Most youth orchestras program pieces written for or adapted to players of certain limited skills – not surprising, considering the educational intent and the available talent pool – but this concert consisted of “adult” music taken from the standard professional repertoire.

Like the last movement of Dvorak’s 8th Symphony, a tuneful folksy tour-de-force that sounds easier to play than it really is. It has lots of exposed work for individual players or sections – like the principal trumpet, flute and clarinet players and the whole horn and cello sections. I remember playing this symphony (as a cello-player) when I was in college with a community orchestra made up of amateur and professional musicians plus some students, and we would’ve been happy if our performance had sounded half as good as this one.

The brass section had their chance to shine during the last work on the program, a full-orchestra work-out of great tunes from John Williams’ film scores concocted not for a student orchestra but for a Kennedy Center award ceremony. All of my thoughts about their enthusiasm and joy and involvement – plus an extra does of sheer fun – were now multiplied by realizing this is the fourth concert these kids had played that day!

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The Harrisburg Youth Symphony is made up of 82 musicians from 20 different schools. 23 of those are seniors who are graduating this year.

Where do you find replacements for that many seniors for next year’s orchestra? I saw Marie Weber who conducts the Harrisburg Junior Youth Orchestra (I knew her from our days in the adult orchestra over 25 years ago) and she very calmly said “you just move people up from the junior orchestra” where they’ve been working very hard on building up their own musical training and experiences.

Of those graduating seniors, conductor Ron Schafer pointed out violinist Rachel Denlinger has been the orchestra’s concertmaster for four consecutive years, something of a record. This is a very key seat in the orchestra’s configuration and the last person, he said, who’d managed that was Carl Iba who has been a member of the Harrisburg Symphony for most of the past 30 years, teaching students who have themselves played in the Youth Symphony.

There is also an annual scholarship, offered in memory of Matthew Skubecz, a student in the orchestra who had died 10 years ago. This year’s winner is violinist Jingwei Li who had been one of the four soloists in the Vivaldi concerto.

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As the school year is gearing up towards graduation ceremonies and summer vacations, the Harrisburg Youth Symphony has one more free concert – a pops program – at the Strawberry Square Atrium this Saturday afternoon beginning at 12 noon. The Harrisburg Junior Youth Symphony will be holding its spring concert the next day, Sunday May 17th, at Lower Dauphin High School auditorium.

Who’s in the audience for these concerts? Mostly the parents and families of the musicians on the stage. They get a chance to hear what their child has been working on individually at home and find out how it fits into the “team structure” of the full orchestra.

I estimated there were probably 250-275 people in the Forum for the concert on April 28th, which would average about 3 people per student. I’m not sure the phenomenon of “symphony mom” will ever catch on quite like the “soccer mom” has – and that’s a good thing since the world is already full of “stage moms” (and dads) as it is – but it’s great that students in the arts have this family support behind them. Everywhere I turned there were people with video cameras and cell phones focused on the Forum Stage. As they were filing on-stage before the concert started, one proud father in front of me stood up and started wildly waving his arms to let his daughter know they were there (and the man sitting next to him said “well, I bet she’s thoroughly embarrassed now”).

But after all the enthusiastic applause from the moms and dads, the brothers and sisters and grandparents who had come to hear them play, there should’ve been another round of applause for the families in the audience for supporting their young musicians, driving them back and forth to lessons and rehearsals and putting up with the not very easy task of listening to them practicing every day. Without their love and support, it’s pretty obvious a lot of these students might not have been on that stage that night. And it was nice to see parents as enthusiastic about what their children were doing and as proud of their accomplishments as if it had been a winning football team.

- Dr. Dick

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