By Rick de Yampert
As Joe Corporon is preparing to lead the Flagler Youth Orchestra in its season-ending concert Monday April 25 at Flagler Auditorium–the 47th all-ensembles concert in the organization’s 17-year history–he recalls a time when his students were struggling during rehearsal – and he simply stopped conducting.
Corporon — a professional cello player, the FYO artistic director and conductor of the Harmony Chamber Orchestra, the FYO’s showcase ensemble – was rehearsing his charges in Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” prior to their November concert. (You might recall the piece from Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” in 1986.)
“That piece is one of the most heart-felt, emotional, roller coaster-type of pieces there is,” Corporon says. “It’s almost like someone’s in agony. That piece was the hardest for them to come to terms with. Not because of technical reasons, but because of the emotional commitment that’s necessary to pull it off. You’ve got to be affected by it or else it comes across kind of flat.”
As the students were struggling during a rehearsal a mere week before their public concert, “I kind of stopped conducting,” Corporon says. “There wasn’t really any hard and fast direction from me. I wanted them to feel the tension in the sound, and where that tension was leading.”
Corporon’s spontaneous get-out-of-the-way approach worked.
“I almost didn’t pick that piece because I wasn’t sure they would be able to connect with it,” he says. “But they did a really good job of pulling it off at that November concert. Things like that are very powerful experiences, and I know when I was a kid, it was those kind of experiences that really made me want to stick with music for the rest of my life.”
The FYO’s traditional season-ending concert at Flagler Auditorium promises to continue the roller coaster ride. The musical program will include the ridiculously silly “Guest Soloist,” the hauntingly beautiful and somber “Theme from Schindler’s List” and the truly roller coaster-ish, slow-fast theatrics of Vittorio Monti’s “Czardas.”
The roller coaster metaphor even extends to the FYO’s current circumstances: In early March the orchestra powered through a last-minute, forced move within its headquarters at Indian Trails Middle School in Palm Coast, says Cheryl Tristam, FYO co-founder and executive director. (Disclosure: Tristam is the wife of FlaglerLive editor Pierre Tristam, and their son Luka is a member of the FYO.)
While the move was anticipated due to Flagler County Schools moving sixth grade classes from elementary to middle schools for the 2022-2023 academic year, the abrupt notice that the move had to happen in March instead of the coming summer was a surprise, Cheryl Tristam said. The FYO was given a two-week notice it would have to move, then knew only a day and a half beforehand where it had to move. So it was forced to quickly vacate six ample and cohesive classroom spaces and an office, and relocate into more diffuse but workable cafeteria space, where the FYO’s various ensembles have gamely continued to rehearse in preparation for the April 25 show.
That concert will feature performances by each of those ensembles, whose student musicians are grouped according to experience and playing proficiency: Opus One Strings, conducted by Lacy San Antonio; Overture Orchestra, conducted by Niki Mousikos; Con Brio String Orchestra conducted by Victor Rivera; and the Harmony Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Corporon. Also, the Flagler Youth Orchestra Faculty will perform with FYO String Quartet members. (The student String Quartet is the most visible, ambassadorial arm of the orchestra, appearing more than a dozen times each year at civic and government functions around the county.)
If a graduating senior is taking private music lessons, the FYO offers each student the opportunity to play a solo in their last concert, Corporon says. (Orchestra rehearsal time, focused on the ensembles themselves, isn’t sufficient to train up the soloists for their chosen part.) Three soloists will perform Monday. The Harmony Chamber Orchestra’s program and respective soloists include “Allegro Appassionato” by Camille Saint-Saens (Corey Lehnertz, cello soloist), “Theme from Schindler’s List” by John Williams (Jack Lisenby, violin soloist), and “Csárdás” by Vittorio Monti (Luka Tristam, violin soloist).
“There’s something challenging about each of the works,” Corporon says. “The most challenging for the orchestra is the allegro by Saint-Saens. It’s an energetic showpiece and there are some tricky things in there. The accompaniment is downright difficult. There’s no other way to put it.”
“Schindler’s List,” John Williams’ theme for the 1993 Steven Spielberg film inspired by real-life Holocaust events, “is very melancholy with that heavy subject material behind it, but it’s so beautiful,” Corporon says. “The music underlies the main theme of the movie, I think — that one person can make a difference, even in the face of abject evil.
“When I spoke to the kids, I told them, if their parents allow them, they should consider watching that film. I told him it’s nothing to take lightly.”
“Czardas” is “based on sort of a Hungarian, gypsy-like melody,” Corporon says. Of the three works featuring soloists, “it’s the showiest of them all. It starts off very slow and before you know it, it’s going at light speed. Then it slows down again, then it’s light speed and double light speed at the very end.”
Corporon, who performs locally as a member of the Daytona Solisti Chamber Orchestra, can empathize with his three young soloists.
“It’s pressure to do a solo,” he says. “I remember doing a solo when I was that age and it’s nerve-racking. But they’ve kind of embraced it. All three of these kids are going to be working on their pieces up until the time the concert starts, because they want to do a great job. It’s a good kind of stretch for them and also a learning opportunity. They’re doing very well.”
The Flagler Youth Orchestra was founded in 2005 by then-Superintendent Bill Delbrugge under the direction of the late Jonathan May and Cheryl Tristam as an after-school strings program. The program, a special project of the Flagler County School District, provides instruction on violin, viola, cello and bass, and is free for any Flagler County students age 8 through their senior year in high school. Members who go on to attend a local college can perform with the FYO through age 20.
Students of all skill levels, including beginners, are welcome. The only expenses incurred by students is for their instrument and beginner book. Through its own fundraising, the FYO offers instrument scholarships for students and their families in need. This academic year, some 200 students are enrolled in the FYO. Pre-pandemic, membership annually hovered around 375 young musicians, about a third of them on scholarships.
“Those numbers are obviously low due to Covid,” Cheryl Tristam says. The FYO typically embarks on a “recruiting tour” for area school students prior to each academic year, travelling to a half dozen schools over two days. Schools would gather students in cafeterias or large classrooms where they could watch an FYO quartet perform and the music director–and student performers–talk about the opportunity. “We would present the instruments and talk about the role they play in an orchestra setting, and we’d let kids handle the instruments,” she says. “With Covid we have not been able to do that.”
Another problem arose prior to this academic year “because we went into our open house (held late summer each year) not having confirmation on where we were going to be,” Tristam says. “It’s a conversation that has to happen every single year, where we have to determine whether our current arrangement is still going to be available for when we hold our classes. But when my flyer went out to the eligible students in the school district, we were unable to say where the program was going to be taking place. I really feel that hurt our numbers. As a parent how do you plan not knowing whether you can get your kid to the classes?”
The FYO ended in the same space it had occupied for the previous 12 years, at Indian Trails Middle School. But uncertainty has returned, and the March move, accomplished with the help of the Indian Trails custodial staff – “the sweetest human beings you have ever met,” Tristam says – as well as FYO families and volunteers, was just the tip of the spear.
“That move was triggered by the need for the school district to refurbish the classrooms that we were utilizing for the past seven years, in preparation for the six graders being moved to the middle school level,” Tristam says. “We knew that we were going to need to be relocated for the next school year. We were a little surprised that the move needed to happen in March in preparation for a school year that starts in August.”
Tristam will be meeting with Flagler Schools staff who oversee use of facilities to determine where the FYO will set up shop for next year, an uncertainty still hanging over the program.
“Usually the summer time is when all these things get worked out,” she says. “I understand the priority is getting the six graders moved and all that.”
Despite the upheaval, Tristam has praise for Flagler Schools.
“It’s not unusual for music to not take front and center in school districts because it’s looked upon as a luxury,” she says. “I think it’s the stronger school districts that put the arts on equal footing with math and science and other core subjects. I actually think our school district does a fine job of handling the arts. The way we are structured, we are able to serve as many kids as are interested in doing this. Whether it be the space that we occupy or whether it be a financial burden that a family might be facing, I see my responsibility as identifying the obstacle that may be keeping a student from playing, and solving that.”
In the meantime, there’s the music – and the joy of seeing young people connect to music.
Victor Rivera, an Iraq war veteran, violinist and conductor of the FYO’s Con Brio String Orchestra, says he “learned a long time ago that the energy brought forth by the organization (FYO) automatically infects the audience. If the students are having a good time with a good piece of music and they are enjoying themselves, it’s infectious to the audience. If the kids like it, I guarantee the audience is going to like it. If the kids are having fun, and I guarantee the audience will too.”
Part of that fun will likely come when Flagler Schools Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt joins the FYO as a guest soloist on Richard Meyer’s “Guest Soloist” – yes, that’s the name of the piece. Mittelstadt will perform on a specially tuned violin.
Corporon says “One of the things I want these kids to walk away with from this experience, and anyone who attends the concert, is that the music, the sounds that you hear, is just sort of the ‘symptom.’ The real music is internal. It’s like a soul sound, if you want to give it a name. And we are there to give it a voice through our collective instruments. I think anybody who comes to the concert will be really surprised and pleased.”
The Flagler Youth Orchestra performs at 7 p.m. Monday, April 25, at Flagler Auditorium, 5500 East Hwy. 100, Palm Coast. Tickets are $8 adults, $3 children 17 and younger, and are available at the Flagler Auditorium box office, online or by calling 386-437-7547.
Rick de Yampert has covered music and culture for over three decades. He is FlaglerLive’s culture writer.