Tuesday, November 18, 2014
A View from the Stage: Progress in Philharmonia
(This week's guest blogger is Adam Brown, Fox Valley Symphony Youth Orchestra's Philharmonia conductor.)
This is my third year as conductor of the Philharmonia, and each year has offered its own unique combination of successes, challenges, and opportunities for the students to grow as an orchestra. When I first entered the position in late spring 2012, the students had already gone through their auditions and I hadn’t met or heard them (beyond the ones who were there for my interview, many of whom were in the previous year’s ensemble). I had to rely on Greg Austin’s (Concert Orchestra conductor) experience listening to them try out, as well as his experience with the Philharmonia-level repertoire, to help me prepare for the early fall retreat and the first concert. Greg was, and continues to be, a tremendous resource of expertise and insight into the past performances of pieces in the FVSO library. By around the time the students were preparing for their spring “mini-tour,” I was finally starting to feel like I knew what I was doing, more or less! I also knew from my years of teaching that I would soon have to start from scratch, listening to many new members auditioning in (or up, to Concert Orchestra). It was a bittersweet time, offering congratulations and well wishes for good auditions that, if successful, would mean that I would no longer be working with those students.
For the second year, I wanted to build on what I saw as a successful first year while offering some different experiences, especially for students who had been in Philharmonia the year before. I tried to offer more solo opportunities, and watched students step up to leadership roles as they challenged themselves to learn these. I also programmed a piece by a living American composer (Magen Miller Frasier), and made the bold statement that the orchestra could do a “distance rehearsal” using software like Skype, even before I had tried to contact the composer! Thankfully, she was very generous with her time and praise of the students, and even requested permission to put their performance of her piece on her website. It was a great moment for the students to have a direct connection with the music-making process that I hope they always remember.
As this year began with the auditions, I was stuck by two things: how the orchestra overall seemed a bit younger, and how incredibly violin-heavy it was! This presented a challenge selecting repertoire that I thought would complement the sounds and strengths of the other sections, while also being appropriately difficult and different from the previous years. For the first time, I chose pieces that feature guest percussionists, a role that has been graciously filled by members of the Youth Orchestra percussion section. I’ve also seen the smaller viola, cello, and bass sections rise to the occasion and play with a strong, confident sound that allows for better balance.
On days when the orchestra has sectionals (three times for each concert cycle), I move from room to room to hear how everyone works together, and I have been continually impressed with the maturity and work ethic the students have shown. The coaches have expressed this much as well, and have appreciated how much is able to be accomplished. I feel like all the hard work and progress is helping make this first concert of the 2014-2015 season become even more polished and excellent-sounding than the past two years!