Thursday, November 17, 2011 ·
James Feddeck conducts the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra on Sunday, November 20, 2011, at 3 p.m. at Severance Hall in a program of Brahms, Bach, and Dvořák. Visit clevelandorchestra.com for details.
Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra: Preparing the Next Generation of Leaders
By Elaine Guregian
When Alisa Weilerstein won the MacArthur Foundation Grant (better known as the “genius grant”) this fall, members of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra could take special pride. After all, from 1992-94, the cellist sat among them as a member of one of the nation’s premier youth orchestras affiliated with a major orchestra. Weilerstein, now a seasoned international performer who returns in May 2012 to solo with The Cleveland Orchestra, represents one segment of COYO alums—those who made a career of music. But when old friends, recent stand partners, and former music directors flocked back to Cleveland in May, 2011 for an Alumni Concert and reunion weekend celebrating the 25th season of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, it became clear that COYO builds even more than musicianship.
Sixty former members of the Youth Orchestra – including five members of the ensemble in its inaugural season -- came from as far as Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. Reunited, they remembered the hard work and the superb concerts -- not to mention the friendships and a few comical memories of getting lost in Severance Hall. And they spoke of what a tremendous difference COYO made in shaping their lives.
Bass player Laura Preslan joined COYO in its inaugural season, 1986, and played through 1990. Today she lives in Seattle, WA where she is a sales and marketing executive for Microsoft.
“My first lessons in leadership came from watching Dr. [Jahja] Ling on the podium,’’ Preslan says, noting that when they played the Mozart Oboe Concerto, she once miscounted and came in early, guns blazing, with a loud entrance. The musicians in the orchestra burst out laughing, and she was mortified, but Ling stopped them. “She’s right,’’ he said. “If you’re going to make a mistake, make it loud. I’d rather have you come in, in the wrong place than not come in at all.’’
Robert Davis, now the band director at the Cleveland School of the Arts, played in the Youth Orchestra from 1992-97. He remembers the late Cleveland Orchestra principal oboe and COYO coach John Mack saying, “To the front!’’ Today, Davis urges his students to play with passion when they have a solo role.
“[The coaches] were tough; even though we were kids, they still expected a certain amount of excellence and I try to do that with my kids [at CSA]. I’m like, ‘I don’t care if you’re kids and you live in the inner city; we’re going to work and do our best with what we have,’’’ Davis says.
While most of COYO’s members live in Northeast Ohio, a few come from much further away to participate. Violinist Jeffrey Zehngut, who recently joined The Cleveland Orchestra, commuted from State College, PA each Saturday. He said, “COYO taught me that sacrifice is worthwhile in order to achieve a goal. My parents drove four hours each way to give my siblings and me the opportunity to play in a world-class youth orchestra and be coached by the best orchestral musicians. We sacrificed our weekends for the chance to play great music with other kids our age.’’
A conductor from the Cleveland Orchestra staff serves as COYO’s music director. Following Jahja Ling, conductors have been Gareth Morrell Steven Smith, James Gaffigan, Jayce Ogren, and current director James Feddeck. Over the years, Cleveland Orchestra guest conductors and guest artists including Pierre Boulez, Sir Andrew Davis, Christoph von Dohnányi, Yo-Yo Ma, Kurt Masur, Gil Shaham, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst have worked with COYO musicians.
Founding music director Jahja Ling proudly notes COYO’s lasting impact on individual lives and the musical world: Alumnus Johnny Lee, a violinist, is now a member of The Los Angeles Philharmonic. Two COYO alumni have been members of the San Diego Symphony, where Ling is music director, and Jeffrey Zehngut’s recent hiring brings the number of Cleveland Orchestra members with COYO backgrounds to four. (Alexandra Preucil, violin; Lyle Steelman, trumpet; and Eliesha Nelson, viola are the others.)
By soaking up The Cleveland Orchestra approach, COYO alumni go on to serve as ambassadors of the Cleveland Orchestra’s musical style. Ling notes, “There are only a few orchestras in the world which carry on a tradition of the musical style and integrity as vividly as The Cleveland Orchestra, and our musicians are willing and capable to pass on this tradition to the young musicians of COYO. From my many professional encounters with COYO alumni who are now scattered around the country, I can say they possess a spirit of music-making which is special and distinguished.’’ Alumni perform in orchestras of all sizes across the country.
In addition to Alisa Weilerstein, violinist Caroline Goulding (2004-07), a winner of the Avery Fisher Career Grant, is quickly making a place for herself, even as she finishes her undergraduate degree. Pianist Orion Weiss (1996-97), who has received the Gilmore Young Artist Award, is another rising young artist.
Leading and Working Together
It’s clear that COYO musicians learn to set high standards of excellence. And yet, Jayce Ogren, music director of COYO from 2006-09, says that one of the most rewarding aspects of leading COYO was developing a family atmosphere. Taking the orchestra on tour to the Boston area fulfilled his dream of bonding the young musicians offstage, so they would connect onstage. “We had four great concerts in the Boston area, the kids played their hearts out, and I really had the sense that we’d gotten to that place where the kids loved being together. Their sense of enjoying each other and being a community made the music even more special,” he said.
Normally, the students each pay an annual fee to belong to COYO (limited financial assistance is available). The organization is supported by a substantial grant from the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation and by gifts from other donors. In addition, the George Gund Foundation and Christine Gitlin Miles provide endowment support. Tours like the one to Boston require additional fundraising, and reap lasting rewards. Sarah Baldessari says that playing harp in COYO for the Boston tour was the highlight of her high school career. The Kenyon College student was excited to play Don Juan at Harvard, learn about Boston history, and speak to members of the Boston Pops. Through COYO, she met other musicians in high school who took music as seriously as she did.
Former music director Steven Smith says his former students impress him by the range of
talents they have, not just in music but the other pursuits that they have undertaken and the success that they’ve had in their lives—regardless of whether they’re pursuing a career in music. Musician, doctor, engineer, scientist, artist: whatever comes next, COYO alumni are ahead of the game.
James Feddeck conducts the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra on Sunday, November 20, 2011, at 3 p.m. at Severance Hall in a program of Brahms, Bach, and Dvořák. Visit clevelandorchestra.com