ESYO holiday special at Proctors features VanDenburg, return of former music director

Helen Cha-Pyo leads rehearsal with the Empire State Youth Orchestra recently at the Brown School in Schenectady. (photo provided)

Helen Cha-Pyo leads rehearsal with the Empire State Youth Orchestra recently at the Brown School in Schenectady. (photo provided)

Over the last forty years, the four days of Melodies of Christmas have been a traditional outing for local families. The pandemic changed all that last year. But staff at the Empire State Youth Orchestra decided the young musicians and the community needed something musical to celebrate the holidays. “A Magical Musical Sleigh Ride,” a Holiday Spectacular, will be presented Sunday, Dec. 19, at Proctors.

“Music is the best accompaniment to the holidays,” said Rebecca Calos, ESYO executive director, in an email. “We believe that our musicians and our community could use a magical sleigh ride and sparkling music to reignite the light and love of the holidays.”

Besides presenting about 85 musicians among the ESYO orchestra, the newly formed string Chamber Orchestra, the Youth Jazz Orchestra, along with 2019 American Idol finalist Madison VanDenburg, the afternoon event welcomes back Helen Cha-Pyo, the ESYO’s former music director. Cha-Pyo had led the orchestra for sixteen years and left four years ago to become the artistic director of the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts and the principal conductor for the New Jersey Youth Symphony.

“I’m really, really thrilled to be asked to work with the current ESYO musicians,” Cha-Pyo said. “ESYO is like a home. I have many wonderful memories especially at this time of year — 16 Melodies, four performances each — that’s a lot of time on stage. And this year, there were two students who’d played under me and are now seniors. They brought me a beautiful bouquet. The first time I’d ever received one at a rehearsal. I’m feeling a lot of love. It’s been an amazing journey for me. It’s like I’d never left.”

Although Cha-Pyo’s concern will be on conducting, the concert itself has a theme: a kind of musical journey around the world. For that, Calos asked noted local children’s author Vicki Addesso Dodd to write a story. Dodd had been a medical research scientist at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital for 13 years particularly with the organ transplant team where she’d authored numerous medical publications.

“I worked 70-hour weeks and loved it,” Dodd said. “But when my husband and I moved to Saratoga Springs in 2004, I decided to try writing — it was on my bucket list. The stories just formed. I took art lessons. . . it was incredible.”

Among her popular titles, which include the Moose series, which is based on the moose that wandered on to the Saratoga Race Course in 2009, Dodd’s books have received several awards. She also has her own publishing house, Saratoga Springs Publishing, which represents about twenty local authors.

For this concert, however, Dodd focused on the repertoire that David Bebe, the ESYO education director, had finalized with Cha-Pyo and Pete Bellino, the Jazz Orchestra’s conductor.

“I wrote a story to complement those pieces,” she said. “So, if the story had everyone stopping at a frozen pond, then they play Waldteufel’s “Skaters Waltz.”

Anne-Marie Gorman Doyle will narrate and two children, Annabelle and Elliott Brin, will act out the scenes.

Because so many groups are involved, everyone will be on stage. The concert will open with the Jazz Ensemble and the holiday classic “There is No Place Like Home for the Holidays” by Glenville-native Robert Allen, then everyone travels through Europe and perhaps play a bit of Mozart; then visit Russia (“How can you not,” Cha-Pyo said).

There will also be stops in England with music by Samuel Coleridge Taylor (“an amazing composer”) who wrote “Bamboula,” which is an energetic Carribean dance possibly once associated with slaves who landed in Haiti but is still celebrated in places like New Orleans, Cha-Pyo said.

“It’s a happy dance and I love this piece.” she said.

VanDenberg will also premiere her new song, “The Light of Christmas” and later come back to join in a traditional carol sing-along.

To make sure all goes well musically, Cha-Pyo has given her players three instructions: “They must have serious fun; they must play with confidence; and they must have lots of empathy to listen to their colleagues and be supportive.”

In these times with everyone having to wear a mask – even some instruments have their bells covered, and always having to think about each other’s safety, Cha-Pyo said being celebratory was “tricky.”

“But I’m sensing we’re coming back: live and in person,” she said. “I hope the music will connect us emotionally, spiritually and physically for all of us to feel that energy.”

The concert will also be streamed starting at 4 p.m. on Christmas Day on ESYO’s virtual Concert Hall.

Empire State Youth Orchestra’s ‘A Magical Musical Sleigh Ride’

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 19
WHERE: Proctors
MORE INFO: 518 346-6204;

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts


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