The New Jersey Youth Symphony: 35th Anniversary Celebration
For many of its instrumentalists, who range in age from about nine to 18 years old, the organization’s already impressive milestone birthday must practically seem like middle-age. But given the orchestra’s recent success in Europe and ambitious concert programming, I’d say the NJYS is in the prime of its life.
In a feat of incredible stage management--both onstage and backstage--the concert features 450 of New Jersey’s most talented young musicians in 13 ensembles led by nine adult conductors performing 15 pieces ranging from the 18th to 21st centuries. George Marriner Maull, the first artistic director of NJYS, will act as the concert’s Master of Ceremonies.
Founded in 1979, the NJYS has one of the longest histories of any youth orchestra in New Jersey and provides talented young musicians with orchestral and related experiences that help them reach their highest potential as performers and listeners.
Thirteen NJYS ensembles are slated to perform at the concert – some in combined groups:
Preparatory Strings (grades 3-5) and Junior Strings (grades 5-7) Michelle Hatcher, conductor
Sinfonia String Orchestra (grades 5-8) Kristi Geronimo, conductor
Junior Wind Ensemble (grades 4-8) and Clarinet Ensemble (grades 8-12) Bryan Ruderrow, conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra (grades 6-9) Mark Gunderman, conductor
Flute Choir (grades 6-9), Flute Forum (grades 9-12) and Fortissimo Flutes (grades 10-12) Diana Charos Reilly, conductor
Percussion Ensemble (grades 7-12) Dr. Kenneth Piascik, conductor
NJYS Jazz Combo (grades 9-12) Dave Schumacher, director
Youth Orchestra (grades 7-12) Simon Lipskar, conductor
Youth Symphony (grades 9-12) Jeffrey Grogan, conductor
Program note bonus round! In addition to the NJYS traditional 13 ensembles, there is another one performing at the concert: The Paterson Music Project – the Wharton Music Center’s El Sistema-inspired program, now in its second year – will perform Suzuki’s “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star Variations” accompanied by the Youth Symphony.
The program has something for everyone – from classical music aficionados to jazz lovers to new music fans. There are melodies everyone will know, such as the performance by the Preparatory and Junior String Ensembles of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” -- heard in the theme music to “The Lone Ranger” television show and in a number of children’s cartoons. (And here’s your cocktail party trivia of the day: despite being one of the most well-known opera overtures, the opera itself – the last of Rossini’s 39 operas -- is very rarely performed. In fact, since 2000, there has only been one fully-staged performance of the work by a U.S. professional opera company: at Wichita Grand Opera earlier this year.)
Another piece on the program that is well-known is Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 “Scheherazade Selections” (Junior Wind Ensemble), which, if you watch any competitive figure skating, you’ve heard it a lot – especially from Americans during Olympic years. I enter into evidence: Michelle Kwan (2002), Evan Lysacek (2010) and Meryl Davis and Charlie White (2014).
But the NJYS will also play a number of pieces with which audiences may be less familiar. One that particularly stands out is William Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost Rag.” (And I don’t say that just because William Bolcom and his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, were recently featured at a benefit for my day job.) But I had no idea that this Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of symphonies and operas such as “A View From the Bridge” has also written little gems like “Graceful Ghost Rag.” But then I read this totally fascinating blog post.
Long story short: Bolcom was part of a ragtime revival group in the 1960s and 1970s – he was searching for the score to Scott Joplin’s then-forgotten opera “Treemonisha,” which has since had a revival of its own, with three productions since 2000: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (2000), Opera Memphis (2009) and New York City Opera (2011). Anyway, his search helped inspire a number of his own ragtime compositions, of which “Graceful Ghost Rag” is the most memorable. Here is a recording by pianist Paul Jacobs. I’m completely fascinated to hear how it works for the NJYS’ Percussion Ensemble at the concert.
But the highlight of the 35th Anniversary Concert is likely to be the last piece on the program: the finale movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, performed by the Youth Symphony – the NJYS’s premiere ensemble and most advanced orchestra. Not only is that a powerful work with which to close out the program, but the Youth Symphony is riding a pretty incredible wave of success. Earlier this year, in July, the group tied for first place (out of 34 ensembles) at the Summa Cum Laude International Youth Music Festival in Vienna. Watch this NJTV feature to hear the orchestra in action and to get a sense of how monumental an achievement this victory was for these teenagers.
I spoke with Jeffrey Grogan, Music Director of the NJYS and Conductor of the Youth Symphony group, about the concert and what it’s like to work with such a group of talented kids. “There’s nothing like the energy of these kids and their work ethic,” he said. “It’s the first time they are performing these works, so they are excited and not jaded” like older, professional musicians who might be playing Mahler’s First for the 18th time this decade.
Grogan particularly finds that his players relate to Mahler because “the things he struggled with – the good and the bad – all come out in his music. The kids hear this and can relate with what’s happening in their own lives.”
But tell me the truth now, dear reader. When you read the words “Youth Symphony,” you probably thought that the audience for this concert would be the kids’ parents, grandparents and other family members, right? Well, you’re partly right. For sure the players’ proud families will pack the house, but Grogan says that the performance is for everyone. “You’ll see a broad range of what’s happening musically in New Jersey,” he said. “Yes, the ensembles are made up of kids, but the Youth Symphony just won a big prize in Vienna and they have a phenomenal sound. It’s a great orchestra, no matter the age of the players,” Grogan continued.
Music – as a player, dancer and audience member – has been an important part of my personal life and professional career. I made friends, learned new things, honed listening and teamwork skills and had a ton of fun while doing it. Though my musicianship undoubtedly never attained the levels reached by the NJYS members, dancing and participating in band and chorus throughout high school and college profoundly shaped who I am today.
So, happy birthday, New Jersey Youth Symphony! Here’s to another 35 years of helping to shape well-rounded citizens for our state, and giving them the experience of a lifetime while doing so.
The New Jersey Youth Symphony’s 35th Anniversary Celebration Concert takes place on Sunday, November 23 at 3:00 p.m. at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, located at One Center Street in Newark. Tickets ($20-$100) are available at www.NJPAC.org. For more information about the New Jersey Youth Symphony, please visit https://whartonarts.org/njys/.