ESYO getting in on the fun of P.D.Q. Bach

Orchestra to perform Saturday at Troy Music Hall
Helen Cha-Pyo, music director and conductor of the Empire State Youth Orchestra, leads the group last week at Proctors.
Helen Cha-Pyo, music director and conductor of the Empire State Youth Orchestra, leads the group last week at Proctors.

TROY — Almost every year, Helen Cha-Pyo, the music director of the Empire State Youth Orchestra, gets a commission for the orchestra to perform. This year, she wanted something different for the orchestra to play on Saturday.

“Few of this generation know of the music of P.D.Q. Bach,” she said. “So when the invitation from pianist Jeff Biegel came to join a consortium, I jumped on it. When I saw the list of orchestras, we were the first youth orchestra. I thought how fun would this be to play with a world class pianist and be introduced to the world of P.D.Q.”

The piece, “Concerto for Simply Grand Piano and Orchestra,” will receive the state premiere. For fans of P.D.Q. Bach — the long-lost son of J.S. Bach aka Peter Schickele — it has all they can expect: quotes from Mozart or Beethoven but turned upside down, cadences that go on . . and on, unexpected honkings from the winds, and various other musical jokes that are all tongue-in-cheek, Cha-Pyo said.

For Biegel, this three-movement concerto is a dream come true.

“I’ve yearned to get P.D.Q. I’ve waited for 15 years,” he said. “I grew up with his iconic recordings. This is a substantial concerto. The hints of humor are subtle. You’ll have to pinch me when it’s over.”

For piano enthusiasts, they may remember Biegel when he performed Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center with the Philadelphia Orchestra during the 1990 season. But new music is where Biegel’s heart lies. He’s become famous for the number of new works he’s performed as well as the consortiums of orchestras he’s organized to perform them.

“I started at 12,” he said. “I was presented a score to a new piano sonata by my teacher, learned it and played it for the composer. It was so exciting. I got direct feedback from a living composer. I can’t text Chopin. I can’t call Beethoven. I decided to focus on playing new works. It was a win-win situation.”

Initially, Biegel chooses a composer, who sets a fee, then he gets seed money from various donors. Then, as he did for the P.D.Q., he put out an invitation on Facebook — he has 4,500 fans, to join a co-consortium. Orchestras generally split the fee evenly. For the P.D.Q., he got 15 U.S. orchestras and one in Finland. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra, which was the first orchestra that signed up, got the world premiere.

Also on the program is Prokofiev’s sunny Symphony No. 5 and Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of J.S. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue.”

For Cha-Pyo, the concert is bittersweet. After 16 years — her last ESYO concert is in June, she’ll become artistic director of the Wharton Institute for Performing Arts in New Jersey, which includes the New Jersey Youth Symphony, the Patterson Music Project (similar to ESYO’s CHIME program) and the Wharton Performing Arts School.

“I’ve spent 15 of the most wonderful years with the ESYO family,” she said. “All the students have touched me and transformed my life. I never thought there would be an end. But the New Jersey school knocked on my door — I was not looking for a job — and they needed someone who lived in residence in a full-time position.”

Cha-Pyo lives in New Jersey with her family and commutes 40,000 miles every year to the Capital District. Moving locally was never an option, she said, but it prevented her from being in residence and becoming more involved in the community. The New Jersey job is barely a nine-minute drive from her home.

“ESYO is doing so well — the musical excellence of the students has always been the center — that I felt I could move on,” Cha-Pyo said. “The timing was right.”

Empire State Youth Orchestra

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4 Saturday
WHERE: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall
HOW MUCH: $20, $10
MORE INFO: 518-273-0038;

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