Nate McLaughlin, the newest member of the Flagler County Commission, was tearing up. He sat there, transfixed, as a quartet of the Flagler Youth Orchestra played a version of Bach’s “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” one of the most recognizably moving iTunes of the last 400 years.
It was a couple of weeks ago, during the county’s Feed Flagler celebration, when the FYO quartet was the entertainment at the Hidden Trails Community Center. McLaughlin had never seen members of the orchestra in performance up close before. He could hardly contain himself with pride and joy, and disbelief, when he was told that there were almost 300 more musicians like that, all of them the product of the Flagler County school district’s 6-year-old string orchestra program—well, not exactly like those four, who included Music Director Caren Umbarger and three of her most advanced players, but you get the idea: that a string orchestra that vast, with beginners to more advanced players, remains a core offering of the school district is unusual in these times. Or any time, really.
- Music, Dance, Art: Auditorium’s 5-Day Holiday Extravaganza Will Boost Art in Education
- Photo Gallery: The Flagler Youth Orchestra From May to Umbarger
- Umbarger: A Musical Journey in the Key of Kindness
- Youth Orchestra’s 200 Take a Bow in Year’s Final Concert
And all those performers will be on stage tonight in the Flagler Youth Orchestra’s first major concert of the year (and 16th major concert in six years) at 7 p.m. at the Flagler Auditorium. The concert is the kick-off event of the Flagler Auditorium’s five-day Holiday Extravaganza, a visual and performing arts festival organized with two goals in mind: First, to give county residents a concentrated look at the variety of artistic productions going on in Flagler schools—from Flagler Palm Coast High School’s choral and band groups to Matanzas’ jazz band to dance performances by half a dozen troupes, and a few professional productions thrown in there.
Second, to support arts in education, particularly in Florida, where the state’s support of arts programs has dwindled to almost nothing: Florida ranks 49th out of 50 states in government support of the arts.
That’s what makes the Flagler district’s support of the youth orchestra that much more remarkable, though the entire program, including the artistic director, three additional music teachers and a program coordinator, costs the district less than $55,000 a year. The actual budget is closer to $70,000, though the difference is picked up by the orchestra’s own fund-raising, which also underwrites close to 60 instrument scholarships for students who can’t afford to rent or buy their own. One of the missions of the orchestra is to ensure that no student is denied the chance to play, no matter his or her circumstances. For students, who rehearse every Monday and Wednesday in three hours of staggered classes each of those days at Indian Trails Middle School, there is no other cost to participate. You can see some of those details up close in a special 190-picture slide show, shot since the beginning of the semester and arranged by Paul Umbarger (Caren’s husband) and shown preceding the concert. It’s “an intimate portrait of what’s happening in FYO,” Paul says. “There’s a lot of artistic content in some of these children’s faces.”
So there’s quite a few meanings behind the theme and title of tonight’s concert of the Flagler Youth Orchestra: “The Gift of Music.” And there’s room to be moved tonight, even when the performers aren’t anywhere near the skill level of that quartet that had McLaughlin welling up.
“The beginners started from scratch,” Umbarger says. “They knew nothing. And now they can play. They know how to hold their instruments correctly, they know how to draw a beautiful sound, and they know how to play together.” Umbarger changed emphasis when she took over the program from the late Jonathan May more than half-way through last year. May’s approach favored rehearsals class after class. Umbarger spends half her class time focusing on skills of playing—she has a thing for bow holds—without which, she says, children can’t become musicians, or keep up with the demands of their craft as they move into more complicated pieces. “Our new approach has been to teach the fundamentals of playing these instruments, and the results will be noticeable at the concert,” Umbarger says.
Tonight’s music program includes no less than six ensembles, each performing three to five pieces. Don’t worry, they’re short pieces. It’ll move along allegro-like, beginning with Ms. Caren’s Beginners (as her first and largest group is called) playing such pieces as a “Pizzicato March” (written by Umbarger’s husband Paul, a performer and composer) and “Playing Ball.” Teacher Jack Jeffe also has a beginner’s group. A rendition of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is on their strings. Paul Liener, the orchestra’s newest teacher, is in charge of performers beginning their second year (and beginning cellos). Listen for a “Royal March.” His group will be followed by a performance of several holiday favorites by the orchestra’s four teachers in their own quartet. “Silver Bells” and “The Hanukkah Song” is on their program (though not Adam Sandler’s version), among other pieces.
Justin McCulloch’s more advanced group and Umbarger’s top orchestra will then follow—with Beethoven, Rossini’s “William Tell,” a little creative Haydn, a Japanese folk song and some jazz—which is to say: don’t leave right after listening to your own child play, if she happens to be in the earlier ensembles, because there’ll be a few riveting performances and a surprise or two thrown in there. Besides, these concerts have plot lines all their own by now.
“We just want to encourage everyone to stay until the end of the concert so that they can see the change and abilities of the different levels of our orchestra program,” Umbarger says.
“The early part of the concert shows the very basic, fundamental, adorable—it’s the adorable stage of learning to play,” says Cheryl Tristam, the program director, “and then you see that progression. It’s the book-ends: this rudimentary approach that you have to take, that they have to grasp in order to do, and be capable of what’s going to happen at the end of the concert. It’s almost like a story, what you would see that night. It’s a story.”
There’s also that overriding theme. “Arts education,” Umbarger says, “has always had to fight for its life. And I hope tonight’s concert will show people the reason why we’re fighting so hard. It’s worth it for these children, and it’s worth it for the community who gets to come out and enjoy them.”
Tickets for tonight’s concert are $6 for adults 18 and up. Younger people get in free. For more information, call the box office at 386/437-7547 or the Youth Orchestra at 386/263-2543. Students and concert-goers are asked to bring at least one non-perishable food item to contribute to the Flagler Auditorium’s food drive, which is part of its Holiday Extravaganza. The food rill be sent to local food pantries.