And just like that, the 10th year is over. Or just about: the Flagler Youth Orchestra’s five ensembles—all 300 students—will be in concert at the Flagler Auditorium Monday at 7 p.m., the 30th full concert of the FYO in its improbable 10-year run. Improbable when it started, but more like the essential step in Flagler’s groove since: At least 2,000 students have attend the school-district supported program at one time or another.
Monday’s concert will be a bit fuller than that, in sounds and musicians. The upper orchestra’s performance features another collaboration with about 20 wind, brass and percussion players from the Flagler Palm Coast High School band. They’ll be performing that Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa of a song, “Smooth,” the Grammy-winning Santana hit—and the second-biggest of all time, according to Billboard (behind Chubby Checkers’ “Twist”)—and they’ll be conducted by the Hot One himself: Band Director John Seth.
FYO Artistic Director Sue Cryan’s students have been working on their concert music since March. Not so the band students. And the two groups had just one two-hour rehearsal—one—in the FPC band room last Thursday, for the three pieces that’ll feature Seth’s musicians. But so it goes in the world of orchestral music.
“It’s a challenge, just because you only get one read-through, and then you’re on stage performing,” Seth said, looking as he often does after conducting like he’d just been seven inches from the midday sun. “But that’s where it’s really good for those kids because they normally don’t get that experience of what professional life is like. Because in professional life you get maybe two or three practices before a gig, and that’s how you earn your keep.”
Seth himself had to very quickly adjust. “I just worked on the ‘Smooth’ piece,” he said, “and I didn’t know I was doing that until today. For me it’s just getting them acquainted with each other because neither one of them are used to each other. Winds aren’t used to strings and strings aren’t used to the wind players, so it’s just trying to give them the information they need to get the song learned, show them where melody is, where the count is, what’s important, dynamics and articulation.”
Cryan loved it. She’ll be conducting two ensembles and more than a half dozen pieces Monday evening, including all five movements of Handel’s “Royal Fireworks”—which may just be the lengthiest single work ever played at an FYO concert, but it’s Epcot-like in sounds, flourish and surprises—and the “Shepherd’s Hymn” movement from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. During Seth’s portion of the rehearsal for “Smooth” Thursday, she sat back, followed with her score and just took in the chance to see her students interact with another orchestra.
“Just having a different conductor is just fabulous,” Cryan said. “It’s an awesome experience for our kids to have that different conductor, a totally different way of doing things. They should get used to that sooner rather than later.” So why not bring them together more often? “Scheduling. I hope we have it more often now, but it’s a lot of kids, a lot of adults to schedule. I’d be happy to do it every concert.”
Band and FYO have collaborated before, including a triple collaboration two years ago that also included Amy Fulmer’s choral group. But it’s not as if the various groups’ directors can snap a finger and make it happen. The band has a frenetic schedule of performances, competitions, testing. Seth had in mid-April taken his symphonic band to the Stetson Honors Band Invitational, where the Buddy Taylor Middle School, FPC’s feeder program, was also represented. And in March Seth’s bands, which include 175 students, brought back a Superior rating for the top symphonic group and two Excellent ratings.
The Youth Orchestra, too, has its own overheated pace. Beside preparing and performing the three annual major concerts at the Auditorium, the upper orchestra and the group’s quartet perform more than a dozen times between them either in concert or at various functions during the school year. “It’s consuming,” Tristam, now the Youth Orchestra’s executive director, says of running the group.
So bringing two enormous operations like the band and the FYO is a symphonic feat in itself, but it has its dividends. Ask Tina DiRosa, a 10th grader turning 16 this week, who joined the youth orchestra in 2013, when she moved to Palm Coast from Long Island.
“This was my first time ever being in an actual symphony orchestra,” DiRosa, a first violinist in the Youth Orchestra’s Harmony Chamber Orchestra (the upper ensemble’s actual name) said, referring to her rehearsal with the band. “When I was in 8th grade I auditioned for my high school orchestra, and I was one of four violinists that got in. But then I found out we were moving down here and I had to give up my spot. So it’s pretty exciting when I found out we were going to join with the band. My twin sister Catherine DiRosa is in the band, she got selected to play with us, so for the first time were got to play together. She plays the second clarinet part.”
It doesn’t get much smoother than that, especially for a performer like DiRosa, who sometimes sounds as if she lives for the violin: she’s been hooked on the instrument ever since, as a younger child, she got sick and happened to watch a Celtic performance on TV featuring a violin. That’s all it took. From there on. It was a matter of finding venues where she could play. On Long Island, her string orchestra class was part of the school schedule. When she moved to Palm Coast she feared that was over. But then she heard of the Flagler Youth Orchestra, and the rest is all rhythm. She’s progressed enough that she is now tutoring students.
None of this seemed quite possible 10 years ago, when the youth orchestra’s ancestor—the Flagler Symphonic Society’s youth group—was petering as a paid program, with just a handful of students. Cheryl Tristam’s daughter was among those students. She didn’t want the opportunity to disappear. She got involved as a volunteer, only to be tasked with telling other parents that the youth group was closing its doors.
A decade and 30 major concerts later, the Flagler Youth Orchestra takes a bow.
But then-Superintendent Bill Delbrugge also didn’t want that opportunity to end. In a relatively quick meeting with Tristam and the late Jonathan May, who’d been the conductor for the youth group, the trio worked out the template of what within weeks would become the Flagler Youth Orchestra: a free program whose conductor—at the time, May—would be paid for by the school district. The principle was simple: No child should ever have to forego the chance to play a string instrument because his or her family could not afford it. So while the conductor was paid by the district, the youth orchestra’s fund-raising would ensure that there’d be instrument scholarships for any student who’d need them.
What Tristam, May and Delbrugge didn’t bank on was the response. They would have considered the program successful had it attracted 50 students. That fall in 2004, no fewer than 150 registered. The program immediately had to add faculty. It’s been growing since. Two years ago, it started the year with 300 students. This year, it ended with 300, after starting at 400. (There’s always loss along the way.) The district supports four of the program’s five teachers and its program director, all for $54,000 a year. The program’s fund-raising, about $18,000 a year, picks up the cost of one and a half teacher and as-needed substitutes, the cost of more than 100 instrument scholarships, and the group’s growing music library.
There’s been challenges. May died suddenly in 2010. His replacement, Caren Umbarger, ended her three-year tenure in the middle of a meeting with then-superintendent Janet Valentine over various differences. The program was slated for elimination during the budget crisis of 2012 but survived when the district decreased its contribution and the program picked up the cost. Several teachers have come and gone, but the program remains. One teacher, Maggie Snively, will be conducting her orchestra Monday night as a mother-to-be: her daughter is due the first day of Summer. Her place in the Chamber Music Camp will be filled by Jacob Ready, a graduate of the program who’s gone on to graduate the University of North Florida with a music degree, and teach at the Flagler Youth Orchestra on numerous occasions.
After 10 years—with students starting in 3rd grade—the program has begun to see other students graduate after spending most of their years in its ranks. Angela DeZego is graduating after spending all but one of the last 10 years in the program. A beginning senior, Benjamin Hood, is also graduating, as is Daniel Masbad, the dexterous first violinist, though Masbad will be back next year, having decided to stay in Flagler and participate, as a couple of students do, as a post-graduate performer. Other than that, the upper orchestra will be almost intact for another year (with additions from lower orchestras), promising even ampler and richer music ahead.
The focus this spring has been on Monday’s concert of course–an end-of-year celebration always dubbed the “Take A Bow” concert. But there’s been a few broader reflections over the meaning and purpose of the group, and the place it has in student’s lives. Cryan devoted her director’s note in the concert program to “reflecting on individual moments throughout the year,” she wrote, “student’s comments, their smiles, their frustrations and eventual successes. It is in those moments that valuable and lifelong memories are nurtured. It is in those moments that I truly understand why teaching and learning music and the arts is so valuable.”
She told one of those stories: “A student told me earlier in the year that an important adult in her life had told her she would never become a professional musician. That statement shattered her dreams and motivation to continue playing. Several teachers and I gathered with her to share some of our experiences early in our lives. We encouraged her to hold onto those dreams and not allow anyone to destroy her passion and joy for music. She has continued to play and today is an enthusiastic, joyful student.”
That student, of course, will be on stage Monday.
“There have been many moments when I am overwhelmed with pride this year in this huge thing we’ve nurtured here in Flagler, even through the tough economic years,” Tristam said. (The school board recognized her work with an award in March.) “My greatest joy though is how this program has been a great equalizer. Because we’ve been able to provide instrument scholarships and coordinate transportation for many of our students, we’ve removed many of the barriers that would keep a child from having an opportunity to play. Programs like this strengthen a sense of community and the spirit of a young child.”
The Flagler Youth Orchestra’s Take a Bow Concert is scheduled at 7 p.m. at the Flagler Auditorium Monday, May 4. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $6 for adults 18 and older, with $1 going to the Auditorium’s Arts in Education fund-raiser. Tickets for children younger than 18 are $1.