Music Director Grant Llewellyn and the North Carolina Symphony Youth SInfonietta present theirsecond concert of the season this coming Sunday, April 22 at 2pm in Kenan Recital Hall on the William Peace University campus. Sinfonietta member Jackson Cooper tells us about his experience with the orchestra's December concert and what it's like to perform with talented peers under the direction of professional conductors.
Youth Sinfonietta-Part 1: Anticipation
We sat in anticipation. It was the feeling you get whenever your favorite store is about to open the day after Christmas. Or when you are waiting to hear your name being called so that you can make a speech. It's a funny little feeling and we all had it.
What exactly were we nervous about? It was probably just excitement, exhilaration. I took my usual seat in the audience, score in my lap, pencil in hand. Maestro Curry mounted the podium. Rehearsals had begun.
I have been a part of the Youth Sinfonietta program since its inception in 2009. Back then, the program was called the "Young All-Stars," marketed as a competitive youth orchestra and differing from any of the programs the Philharmonic Association had to offer. It was where the very best and most dedicated can work under extreme deadlines (one week) to prepare a concert, paralleling the rehearsal schedule of a North Carolina Symphony orchestra member. It was, in essence, the North Carolina Youth Symphony.
And what of the music? Beethoven? Ravel? The standard youth orchestra repertoire? Yes, but even more difficult. Rather than playing Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture, we play his 7th symphony. We premiered works from new composers both national and local. And there I was, a dinky freshman percussionist looking to play one instrument and one instrument only: timpani. Ever since my first encounter hearing The Rite of Spring, timpani was the one instrument I wanted to play. I auditioned, placed, and instead of four timpani they gave me two cymbals.
Today, I'm still in the orchestra, but my role will be touched upon later in this entry.
One of the biggest incentives to auditioning and being a part of this program is the opportunity to work with NCS conductors. Grant Llewellyn serves as the music director and conductor of the orchestra. This year, however, Maestro Llewellyn hands his baton to Sarah Hicks to conduct the first concert of the 2011-2012 program. While Sarah is away for the first rehearsal, Bill Curry steps in.
"You're a very special group," he tells us. "It is truly a wonderful experience you all are getting to have. Let's start with the Beethoven."
Short, simple, concise. So much said in such a short time. What words to start a rehearsal with! "You're a very special group." The sentence seemed to ring in everyones ears as the first read-through of Beethoven's 7th began sounding unlike a youth orchestra. It sounded what this orchestra was: professional. Special.
Rehearsals continued into the night with Maestro Curry sharing his insights into the 7th symphony. I even noticed that he did not once open his score when he began rehearsal. It was only when he began to tweek sections of the piece that he consulted the manuscript.
"Everyone play the first note of the first movement please." He gives a gesture. The orchestra plays the note. He cuts them off. "There is a lot of controversy surrounding that first note. Especially the dot that sits above it. Do you play the note long? Short?"
Everyone looks at their part with amazement and fascination. A dot: the center of controversy in the music world. He was right, though. The violins had dots above their chromatic scale a couple bars after the first note and they play it staccato. How long is that first note?
But I digress, I often get ahead of myself when analyzing scores.
It was a fascinating bit of insight he shared and the rehearsal continued with more musical ideas being expressed, meanings behind movements. By the time we left, it occurred to us that none of us had never been challenged that much to think about a piece before.
Rehearsal ends, I scribble in my notes:**Challenge #1: Think about the music you play, not what you see.**
It occurred to me then that if the orchestra sounded that good will Maestro Curry, how would they sound when Sarah Hicks conducted?
Only one way to find out....
To be quite honest, the whole thing seemed nerve-wracking. I was just told that Maestro Curry wanted me to conduct the orchestra at the end of Thursday's rehearsal...on the Beethoven 7, movement 2. I agree, how could I turn down an opportunity like that?
Ah, I can see your look of confusion. Allow me to explain....
While I enjoy playing and making music, my first love has been conducting. I'm not exactly sure what drew me to it. Perhaps it was being up on the podium, turning your back to the audience in order to produce a majestic sound.
Perhaps. All I knew was that it was the most fun I could have. So, in my sophomore year of high school I had the courage to ask about student conducting for the Young All-Stars program. And, as they say, the rest is history. As student conductor, my job is to be a sort of assistant to the music director, taking notes, marking the scores, and, on occasion, leading a rehearsal. It was the most fun anyone could have and I was lucky enough to be doing it.
Still, Maestro Curry's request was surprising. The magnanimity of a movement like the 2nd of the 7th symphony is unmeasurable. Surely, a student conductor should conduct something....simpler. Perhaps a dance from Bartok's Romanian Dances or an excerpt of Pavane for a Dead Princess by Ravel? But, if he believed me capable of handling it, then I must have been.
I was absent for the first rehearsal with Maestra Hicks, though judging from the sound of the orchestra on Thursday's rehearsal, it must have gone well.
Thursday arrived and I sat in my car, 10 minutes early. My hands shook from anticipation, nerves. Taking a few deep breaths, I turned off the ignition and walked into the rehearsal. Terry Mizesko was the guest conductor. Like many of the musicians, I had the immense pleasure of playing one of Mr. Mizesko's compositions in Triangle Youth Symphony (or Philharmonic). Under his direction, the orchestra shone. He, like Curry and Hicks, connect to us. "There are some wrong notes," he says , stopping the orchestra during Ravel. "Your brain fell asleep. But that's okay, my brain fell asleep ten years ago and hasn't woken up." He beams as we let out a laugh. His arms go up and the opening chords of the Beethoven rang with dignity and triumph, even in its softest passages; It all sounded concert worthy.
Maestro Curry sat next to me. He had come to watch me conduct and talk through the score. As Mr. Mizesko was finishing up discussing the articulation of a flute passage, Maestro Curry and I made our way into a room behind the stage where sat a table and two chairs. From there, a dialogue began. I asked him about his career as a conductor and the opportunities he was given to conduct, how they shaped him, and so on. We discussed everything from conductors to Virginia (one of his first appointments was in Richmond where my family lived for several years) to Bernstein to the different techniques conductors used. The dialogue came to an intriguing topic: the nature of this second movement.
"How would you conduct this? How fast?" He asked.
I tapped my finger on the edge of the table, around 60 bpm, similar to a clock ticking.
"It's not a funeral march," He said. "What do you think it means?"
I replied that, to me, the second movement was Beethoven's swan song, so to speak. The entire movement is almost autobiographical. Around the time he wrote his 7th symphony, he was beginning to lose his hearing, he was being rejected by members of society who praised him, and his life was taking an opera-like plunge into tragedy. "Personally, i feel like this is him sort of rising above it all. It is not a funeral march, it is him conquering the fears, remembering the joys of life he had, and rising above his troubles." Between Maestro Curry and I there was a pause. "I agree," He replied, delving into his interpretation of the score, how the lighter sections are to be pushed faster, to move. That's really all Beethoven wanted to do, keep moving, never stop writing.
"Remember to keep the music in your head and not the other way around."
I walked out of the room and onto the stage, baton in hand.
"Hello. My name is Jackson Cooper, I'm your student conductor and here is Beethoven's 7th, movement two."
Everyone seemed nervous, I decided to acknowledge the fact that I was recording this for future use.
"Do pardon the camera in the back, I promise this isn't going on TV, it's just for auditions and such....so don't stink." The orchestra laughed. Ok, maybe this could work. In my mind, I sang the opening rhythm and I raised my hands. I set the downbeat. And we were off.
What happened after was a blur to me. In fact, now that I recall, the entire thing was a blur. I DO remember conducting, don't get me wrong, but I remember the way the orchestra played was--I can't even think of the right word to describe it with. We were all proud of it, that was certain.
I cut off the final note, look up, smile, and exhale the breath I've been holding the whole song. I turn and look in the 4th row where Jessica Myers, Mr. Mizesko and Maestro Curry were all sitting. Both Curry and Mizesko praised the orchestra's sound and their interpretation of the song. Maestro Curry told a brief anecdote of Beethoven's life and the circumstances he was under when he wrote this piece. After the feedback was given, Jessica dismissed everyone and we left.
I sat in my car in the parking lot of Peace. Did I really just do that? Yep, I did.
* * *
Dress rehearsal with Maestra Hicks went smoothly. I was struck by how relatable she was to all of us. Walking in, Starbucks in hand, she smiles and begins having a conversation about how everyone is doing and about the concert. We go through the pieces, stopping only to rehearse tiny details.
And then, it was concert time.
The anticipation was back.
You know, there's something awfully funny about stage lights. When they turn on, it's as though the nerves in your body seem to disappear. At least, that's how it was when the stage lights came on and Maestra Hicks walked out onto the stage. This was it. Eight hours of rehearsal, over twenty bottles of water, and three guest conductors later and this was it. This was what we worked for. I don&