Contemporary Youth Orchestra
by Kelly Ferjutz
Let your Imagination run wild for a moment. You're a classically-trained violinist, a member of a major American Symphony Orchestra, and you're about to give the world premiere performance of a concerto for violin and orchestra. The composer is flying in from Prague for the occasion. Exciting, no? Well, what if the venue for this performance was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum? And what if that composer was Jaz Coleman of Killing Joke?
This very situation actually happened, on June 8, 2001, when Mark Jackobs (still a member of the Cleveland Orchestra) was the soloist in Riders on the Storm, a work of nine movements, each a song by the Doors arranged by Coleman to honor those who fell in the Vietnam War (The Doors Concerto was eventually recorded by superstar violinist Nigel Kennedy).
The orchestra that played with Jackobs is the surprise factor here. Led by its dynamic young founder Liza Grossman, the Contemporary Youth Orchestra had been based at Cleveland State University for six years. As of March 12, 2005, they'll celebrate their 10th anniversary with a gala concert featuring CYO members as composers and performers (in traditional and new symphonic music), plus a different version of Graham Nash's Teach Your Children Well. Originally performed for the first time in 2003 during a concert of all Nash music, it has been rewritten to feature a children's choir.
The thirty-something Jackobs says, "It was so cool to meet those guys," referring not only to Coleman, but (as a member of the Board of Trustees of CYO) Nash and Jon Anderson, whose music was presented in 2004. Jackobs laughs as he adds, "And all the kids were rummaging through their parents' record collections, trying to find out more about these rock icons, some of whom they'd never heard of before these concerts."
Liza Grossman is very much a can-do person. The fact that she'd never conducted any kind of orchestra didn't faze her in the least when she was asked to organize – and conduct – a chamber orchestra at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. "I can do that," she replied, and proceeded to set about learning just how to do it, though she'd had a good bit of experience watching conductors in her then-fifteen-some years as a classical violinist and violist.
In 1992, Ms. Grossman and her young musicians attended a workshop on contemporary music at CSU where the featured speaker was noted composer Bernard Rands. If she is the mother of the CYO, then he is certainly the grandfather, because he told her "You have an ability to hear and teach this music. It is a gift and I think you should start a contemporary youth orchestra." She thought about it for two years, then bit the bullet, invested her life savings, and set about the process of starting an orchestra. From scratch.
The first rehearsal in September, 1995 consisted of 35 musicians, the backbone of the organization. They played full-sized pieces, although "with a little help from my friends", Liza is quick to add. She gave no quarter, nor did her young charges ask for any. It was a challenging program, by any standard. The first piece performed was And God Created Great Whales by the American-Armenian composer, Alan Hovhaness.
Now, her orchestra will present the music of Pat Benatar and her husband Neil Giraldo. "It's time to honor a woman rocker", says Ms. Grossman about the evening-length concert of their music, including (among others) "Hell is for Children," "Heartbreaker," "GO," "River of Love," and "Promises in the Dark."
Maintaining the original integrity of this music while making it into a full-orchestral score is the task of 30 year-old composer/orchestrator Paul Leary, who teaches theory and computer music at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and Case Western Reserve University. Last year, he orchestrated half the content of Symphonic Song Cycle - an evening with Jon Anderson of YES. In 2003, it was the evening titled CLASSICAL NASH, featuring music mostly by Graham Nash.
The anniversary concert will feature orchestra violinist Gina Ardillo as the piano soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 2 of Dmitri Shostakovich. Another of the CYO violinists, Lavinia Pavlish, will be the soloist in her own Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra. Works by two former trumpet players now studying composition will also premiere: Manhattan Dawn by Ryan Gallagher, now a composition major at Juilliard, and Explorations of the Human Psyche by Rachel Kincaid, now at the Eastman School of Music.
Ever stretching the boundaries is FUROR, the first piece ever commissioned by the CYO of an entire section with the orchestra – the percussion players. The four of them – Dan DiPiero, John Stuart Ely, Emily Parobek and Steve Peshek – will be soloists in a work that utilizes nearly a dozen percussion instruments.
Cellist David Ellis will be featured in Schelomo (Hebrew Rhapsody for cello and orchestra) of Ernst Bloch. The finale – which promises to be a hum-dinger – is Teach Your Children Well, by Graham Nash, for which all former CYO members will be invited to participate – along with current members – plus the CYO Children's Choir. Nash can't be here this time, but of the visit in 2003, when his music was performed for the first time by the CYO forces, he said, "I can't begin to tell you all what a wonderful time I had making music with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra...I was thrilled to be a part of the energy that was coming from the stage. It was an amazing experience, and here's to the next time!"
Paul Leary has also had several of his own works performed as well. By all accounts, one of the most astonishing of these was his Concerto for Trumpet, Turntables and Orchestra, commissioned by the CYO in August, 2003. The performance in December of that year featured Joe Miller on trumpet, while the turntables were supervised by DJ Reemycks.
High school senior Abie Klein-Stefanchik, who performs in both the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra and the CYO, was blown away by the Leary piece. He's been playing double bass for seven years, adding electric bass guitar more recently, mixing up jazz with the classics. He derives different benefits from the two groups. "Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra has such a high level of musicianship for the age group involved; it really makes me play better. There is no downside, but the music is more serious – the CYO makes music more fun and intriguing to me."
It's the old structure versus improv thing. Abie continues: "Music isn't just about music. It's about the musician using whatever their preferred mode is to make that music. With the CYO, composers are there, pushing the limits of classical music, yet it's more relaxed and comfy. I can express more of myself in how I act and how I play." The Leary piece was, he says, "...pretty amazing. It was incredible seeing the turntables used as instruments. They were melodic and rhythmic at the same time – different from anything I've ever heard before. Some of it was improvised, but most of it was written out."
Abie is currently investigating colleges for next fall. He's leaning toward Oberlin, because that would give him another year in CYO, until he's nineteen. "I have to have jazz in my life. Classical music wouldn't do it for me. The repertoire multiplies exponentially, and you just have to find a way to enjoy it. Rock is always subject to change. And I like playing for Liza; she's open to suggestion, always aiming for the better."
Monica Houghton's Canyon Voices was premiered by the CYO on the same concert as Leary's Concerto. It's a trip through the Grand Canyon told in music rather than words – a remnant of a trip she made with her then 14-year-old-son and a friend of his; a "musical postcard," if you will. She was "terrifically impressed with the quality of the performance and level of commitment to the music. The orchestra was keen to make the music real to the audience."
Ms. Houghton's music has been performed on a fairly regular basis in Cleveland and elsewhere – an extraordinary acknowledgement to her talent, considering she didn't really begin composing until about ten years ago. Her memories of this experience include the parent who told her "my child just loved working on your piece" and the young musician who is also a painter, who told her "rehearsals (for your piece) are just like working on a painting."
The highest upside to the ten year adventure is this: 100% of the young musicians go on to college. Not all of them have graduated – yet – but there hasn't been time for that to happen. It will, however. Liza Grossman says so. And whatever Liza says goes!
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