About 600 children from the greater Capital Region and western New England get inspiration and musical instruction from the Empire State Youth Orchestra, an umbrella organization now in its 42nd year that includes 12 ensembles and a chorus.
Four new people were added to the roster this season who will continue to direct the groups’ high standards. None is more influential than Andres Rivas, who will conduct the Empire State Youth Orchestra in the opening concert of the season Friday (Nov. 5) at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.
“I’m having a fantastic time with the students,” Rivas said.
Rivas, who at 31 is also assistant conductor for the Orchestra Now based at Bard College, takes over for Carlos Agreda, who was the ESYO’s music director. Agreda will return to conduct the Melodies of Christmas show.
To some extent it is no surprise that Rivas was chosen as the guest conductor. A native of Venezuela, he grew up in the famed El Sistema program founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu, which produced the incredibly talented Gustavo Dudamel, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a frequent visitor to the Venezuelan youth orchestra.
Rivas, also a talented violinist and a member of the orchestra, had dreams of becoming a conductor. It was at a concert in 2011 that Dudamel passed him the baton to conduct, something he repeated months later at a tribute concert when Rivas shared the podium with Dudamel.
So how did he get to Bard College?
“Leon Botstein [president of Bard College and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra] went to Venezuela to conduct Shostakovich’s 10th symphony,” Rivas said. “He invited me to come to Bard to do work in the Conductor’s Institute and I loved the program.”
When Rivas expressed interest in getting his master’s degree at Bard in orchestral conducting, Botstein agreed and in 2017, he completed his degree. The next year he served as concertmaster for the Orchestra Now. His conducting skills had also come to Agreda’s attention.
“Two or three years ago, Carlos had me do an ESYO sectional rehearsal for him at the Brown School,” Rivas said. “He knew I lived in Red Hook only an hour away and he liked my work.”
As it turned out, so did the kids.
Now that Rivas has been in rehearsal since Sept. 8 with the ESYO, he’s discovered a few things about working with mostly high school students and the difficulties of social distancing on stage.
“Youth orchestras are used to more gestures, especially from their own music director, so having a new conductor with new patterns takes time. The winds are all spread out while the strings are close, so hearing each other is hard,” he said. “Everyone is masked including at rehearsals, which is a drag — even for me. It’s exhausting, I can’t breathe.
“And the program, which Carlos chose —I thought Arturo Marquez’s ‘Danzon’ would be the easiest because of the rhythms. It’s played all over the world, especially in Latin America, but it turned out to be the trickiest. And Jennifer Higdon’s ‘Light’ — her structure is not common, it’s unique. But the kids are excited to be playing Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. They play differently. They’re so thrilled, they’ve heard the piece.”
Amazingly, he knows the acoustics of the Troy hall because seven years ago an orchestra he was in played there.
“The Troy hall is out of this world,” Rivas said.
Bellino leading Youth Jazz Orchestra
The next concert on the calendar is Nov. 20, also at the hall, with the Youth Jazz Orchestra, now conducted by jazz trumpeter Peter Bellino. Grammy-nominated trumpeter Michael Rodriguez will guest.
“It’s the first time I’m conducting a big band,” Bellino said laughing.
A long-time gig player with artists who have world-wide credits, Bellino has taught locally at various colleges, but this job is as much about learning a style of music as it is about its evolution.
“I selected standard repertoire like Ellington, Strayhorn, Miles Davis to get them to pull together with how to rehearse, pitch, style,” Bellino said. “Jazz is an aural art. If it doesn’t swing, then stop and work it out.”
While some of his players are “super high level,” Bellino wants to be sure they all know what the various styles of jazz sound like, what the different grooves or tempos create as well as being able to read the charts.
“I’m fascinated by early jazz, the blues, the field work songs. And I’m a huge fan of Miles Davis and his growth as a player and as a leader,” he said. “We will also do some funk.”
Bellino expects to cover theory and harmony — necessities for anyone who must improvise and for bass players who need to lay down a strong line.
“Jazz is a beautiful art form. It connects with our soul, pulls at your heart. And it’s made in America,” he said.
CHIME, young leaders program
There are two other programs that are recent additions to the roster. The CHIME program (Creating Harmony Inspiring Musical Excellence) began in 2015 to benefit young children, especially from economically disadvantaged circumstances, with an instrument and free music lessons. The Young Leaders Program from 2019 is for any ESYO member to volunteer in community projects, such as performing in nursing homes, do workshops and talks to help further their careers. Zoe Auerbach is the new manager for both programs.
“My background is in education from a philosophical perspective and how it can address issues of equity,” Auerbach said. “I rely on that daily.”
Some goals this season are to build the CHIME program enrollment up to one hundred or more students — something that declined this past year because of the pandemic. She also wants to strengthen the partnerships with schools where lessons can be given. Currently, programs are at several districts in Schenectady, at Troy’s Oakwood Community Center and Albany’s Hackett Middle School.
“I want to eliminate barriers that limit certain students and to level access, which some families don’t have, to such things as affording lessons and instruments,” she said.
Coordinating it all
Overseeing all the programs is what David Bebe will do as the ESYO’s first director of education. A cellist and long-time teacher most recently at The College of Saint Rose, Bebe has a passion for teaching.
“I want to create enrichment opportunities to enhance the music experience,” he said. “More specifically, to help those students who want to pursue a career in music and to interact and inspire those who might not. My role among all the ensembles and CHIME, Young Leaders and any new programs is how they interact and the path of sequences they follow.”
Thus, how does a young trumpeter, for example, go from their first lessons, to joining a group, then working their way up through the trumpet section to another more experienced or more adept group to deciding on whether a music school or another career path should be taken. Along the way, how do each of the music directors or teachers guide that trumpeter.
“What are the needs and demands and how ESYO, the orchestra and the players, interact with other ensembles and how connected are they,” Bebe said. “How to design a curriculum from group to group as the player travels.”
Bebe said he wants a larger sense of community and a more shared musical experience and goals. He also wants to help parents to clarify how to help their kids pursue their musical interests as to auditions or developing discipline to practice.
“In other words, how to go from “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to Tchaikovsky,” Bebe said.
Bebe has already put his ideas in action. Hired in July, he started a summer two-week chamber ensemble “camp” where ESYO members formed small ensembles such as a woodwind quintet or a small string orchestra — all student led. They also had sightreading sessions, hikes, visited Tanglewood Music Center, and the brass had a technique workshop.
“The kids were hungry for it. You could see the fire in their eyes,” he said.