ESYO to end season with a first – playing at Zankel Center

“We’re so thrilled to be at Zankel,” Helen Cha-Pyo, the Empire State Youth Orchestra music director

The Empire State Youth Orchestra will close its season with a debut concert on Sunday at the Zankel Music Center at Skidmore College.

“We’re so thrilled to be at Zankel,” said Helen Cha-Pyo, the orchestra’s music director for the past 11 years. “It’s a brand new hall for us. We’re hoping people who have never heard us will give us a hear.”

This year the orchestra has 96 musicians, most of them of high school age, who have gone through a rigorous audition to meet Cha-Pyo’s high standards. Once accepted, the students rehearse weekly throughout the school year, often breaking up into smaller ensembles, such as the Percussion Ensemble, String Ensemble or the Jazz Ensemble, which each has its own concert schedule.

Empire State Youth Orchestra

WHEN: 5 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College

HOW MUCH: $20, $10

MORE INFO: 382-7581; 580-5321;

What makes this year’s orchestra particularly special for Cha-Pyo is that most of the players were part of the 2012 tour to China and South Korea.

“I’m so very proud of the students … and the confidence and maturity they learned from being on the tour,” she said. “We’re reaping the fruits from that trip.”

Generally, the orchestra goes on tour every four years and brings a repertoire that includes works by American composers. ASCAP thought the choices were especially impressive in 2007 and gave the ESYO the “Adventurous Programming Abroad Award.”

“This is rare, especially for a youth orchestra,” Cha-Pyo said.

One of Cha-Pyo’s missions is to introduce the vast range of symphonic literature to her orchestra, including works by living composers, who, when possible, come to rehearsal and work with the students. This goal is even more of a challenge since the orchestra’s membership turns over only about every five years.

“There are so many pieces to introduce them to that I don’t want them to play the same overture,” she said. “You need a balance. I don’t choose from the classical era, for instance, because the brass would sit out. You need to include everyone.”

Different avenues

Sunday’s concert gave Cha-Pyo an unexpected chance to explore other avenues. In past years, the June concert was always at Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood. But renovations there this year made that impossible. When Cha-Pyo realized the concert would be at Zankel, all kinds of other ideas for programming opened up, she said.

Since Saratoga is celebrating the 150th anniversary of thoroughbred racing in the city and because the concert date fell within the Saratoga Arts Fest week, Cha-Pyo said she decided on music related to the area and to horses.

The program will begin with Franz Suppé’s Overture to “The Light Cavalry.” This is from his comic opera, which premiered in 1866, and has an obvious connection to a race track, Cha-Pyo said.

The next piece she really wanted to do was Behzad Ranjbaran’s “Saratoga Overture,” which the Philadelphia Orchestra had commissioned to celebrate its 40th anniversary and performed in 2009 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. There was only one problem: The piece required a huge contingent of percussion players.

“I was tearing my hair out as to how to divvy up the percussion parts,” she said.

Apparently, Ranjbaran got word from his publisher that Cha-Pyo wanted to do his piece and was having problems, because he offered to revise the score.

“I never requested the changes,” she said. “Even his publisher was surprised. But he reduced the percussion to four and he changed the name to ‘Festive Fanfare.’ It’s six minutes long.”

Cha-Pyo said she thinks the need for the extra players in the original version is probably one reason the piece isn’t requested more often.

“Ranjbaran is thrilled and that we’re doing it in Saratoga,” she said. “It’s the first time for all of us to play the piece.”

Commissioned piece

On a more local note, Welsh composer Hilary Tann wrote “From the Feather to the Mountain” on commission to celebrate the ESYO’s 25th anniversary in 2005. Because Tann teaches at Union College, she has come to rehearsal to work with the musicians, Cha-Pyo said.

The piece, which is 14 minutes long, has a life. That means that once the ESYO premiered the work, it has had subsequent performances. In this case, not only has the National Youth Orchestra of Wales taken the piece on a 2011 tour, but the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra has recorded it.

“It’s very lively and it’s great to introduce it to young people,” Cha-Pyo said.

In the second half of the concert, the strings will play Samuel Barber’s famed Adagio for Strings, which is actually the second movement from his String Quartet. Barber had ties to the Bolton Landing area, where he often came to visit his famous aunt, contralto Louise Homer.

The orchestra will also perform Gustav Mahler’s “Totenfeier” (“Deathfire”). Initially, Mahler wrote this on commission to be a tone poem. Later, he turned it into the first movement of his Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”).

“The music is the same but it’s of smaller size,” she said. “It’s 20 minutes long and self-sufficient musically. The ending is about there’s life after death.”

If all goes well, there may even be a couple of encores, Cha-Pyo said with a laugh.

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