Encores & Curtain Calls: Bringing the light to our children
“I can remember everything. That’s my curse, young man. It’s the greatest curse that’s ever been inflicted on the human race. Memory.”
— Jedediah Leland, remembering Charles Foster Kane in “Citizen Kane”
My thesis, friends, is this: that the earlier our children come to the light — or in this case, the music — the better.
Ingenious and wondrous in construction and function as they may be, the human brain and nervous system are still far from ideal creations, as a lifetime of attempting to mentor the young and the not-so-young into the musical arts has repeatedly revealed. Indeed, the brain often creates as much static and impediment to learning as facilitation thereto, particularly in the adult of the species.
Soberingly, many researchers assert that by 7 or 8, we are already hard-wired for whatever existential milk we’ve been weaned on. Jedediah Leland’s brief homily, then, seems to put its finger on the chief cause for what ails the race we call human: the social, racial, emotional matrices that so early shaped it.
On the brighter side, if things are done well and humanely early on, we can save ourselves and our loved ones needless wanderings. Given, then, the unrelieved wasteland of virtual media flooding our world and barely passing for “music,” claiming, through its own sheer relentlessness, the ears and minds of our still marginally innocent youth, anyone willing to cut a swath through the wilderness on their behalf and bring them to the vast, incalculably rich seas of the Music of the Ages — the Bachs, Mozarts, Dvoraks and Ravels — is a candidate for a Nobel Prize for the Reclamation of Souls.
After what appears to be a far longer and more challenging gestational process than most may be willing to imagine, and due to the particularly devoted vigilance of two musically passionate midwives, this noble undertaking has given us a brand new Pioneer Valley Youth Orchestra, comprised of 38 players and all instruments accounted for. Under the aegis of director Jonathan Brennand, the ensemble will have its second outing Saturday, April 12, at 4 p.m. at Northampton High School, 380 Elm St., Northampton. Happily, the concert is free and open to the public.
A talk with PVYO director Jonathan Brennand follows:
JM: So how did this miracle all come about?
JB: While this is the first season of the Pioneer Valley Youth Orchestra, it had been in the works for a long time and it came about due to the efforts of two people, Mary Kay Hoffman and Judy Hudson, who’ve been working behind the scenes for many years, trying to gain the support of Franklin County for a youth orchestra. It’s really through those two — Mary Kay Hoffman of the Artspace in Greenfield, and Judy Hudson, who has been manager of PVS for many years, and has been president, and who started the education programs at PVS. Last spring, they came together and decided to start the orchestra.
JM: And how did the PVS find you?
JB: I auditioned for the job in 2011 and I had been working for the symphony for two seasons when they asked me if I would be interested in leading the youth program, and I said yes.
JM: Are you still the assistant conductor for the PVS?
JB: I am, yes.
JM: What does that involve?
JB: Well, I go to all the rehearsals and I work for the music director Paul Phillips, so I support him and give him whatever he needs, whether leading a rehearsal for him if he has to be away, or to coach sectionals (partial ensemble rehearsals).
JM: You oversee other groups?
JB: Yes, I oversee many other orchestras outside of PVS; PVS is just a small part-time job. I’m director of the Worcester Youth Orchestras. The senior (youth) orchestra does five concerts a season and we have a preparatory orchestra as part of our training program. It’s a program that’s really grown in the past two years under my leadership.
JM: I imagine it’s quite a tough challenge to select repertoire that’s compelling and yet capable of being handled by less-than-professional proteges.
JB: Right, and any goal of education is to introduce students and young musicians to the major composers and the major works. And, for the PVS youth orchestra, it’s a younger orchestra, so we do a lot of arrangements and editions of major works that have been edited in a way that they are more playable by less-experienced musicians, but they are still great educational works because the students get to know the music of Dvorak, Mozart and Bach without having to play the full piece.
JM: Are you completely free to choose your own repertoire as conductor of the youth orchestra?
JB: Yes, although I talk to teachers and colleagues and players to get their input and also consider the right length, with some challenging pieces and some easier.
JM: And what is the program for the upcoming concert?
JB: We’re opening the concert with the overture to “Nabucco” by Verdi, and we’re playing an arrangement of a Dvorak Slavonic dance, two movements from Bizet’s “Les Arlisiennes,’ two movements — arrangements — from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” – the “Largo” and the “Finale.”
JM: What is the median age of the youth orchestra?
JB: This is primarily middle school — probably 12, 13, 14. We have players that are 10 years old and some who are older than that.
JM: Are all the orchestral sectors represented, or are you without certain instruments?
JB: No, we’re very fortunate, we have everything covered. And the members of the Pioneer Valley Symphony very graciously donate their time to play in the orchestra either in rehearsals or in concerts to help mentor and support and coach the younger players. I’m extremely grateful to them, for their giving of their time and it’s a wonderful experience for the students to play alongside a very experienced player. Sometimes the adult PVS players will lead sectionals and coach those sections. And the students don’t pay any extra for that, that’s all included in their tuition.
JM: So there is an initial sign-up cost?
JB: Yes, that’s very standard with youth orchestras, and our tuition is very low in comparison to most other programs in order to make it affordable to everybody.
Yes, the sooner we come to the music, the better! Amen.
This concert is funded in part by a grant from the Beveridge Family Foundation, and with support from the Mary Stuart Rogers Foundation.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.