New music director brings Soundpainting concept to ESYO; concert set Sunday

Etienne Abelin

Etienne Abelin

TROY – When the Empire State Youth Orchestra opens its season on Sunday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, the concert will present more than a new group of young musicians. It will officially mark the first season of the orchestra’s new music director, Etienne Abelin, and a new concept in music making for the musicians called Soundpainting.

Abelin is from Switzerland and was for years a violinist with such orchestras as Orchestra Mozart Bologna and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under famed conductor Claudio Abbado. He also studied at Indiana University and did advance work in baroque violin and jazz at Oberlin. But he got interested in conducting and began working with European youth orchestras, particularly Superar Suisse and co-founded the Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra. Degrees in conducting followed from the University of Delaware and the Eastman School of Music.

When he discovered that ESYO was looking for a new music director, he didn’t waste any time.

“Working with kids is a passion of mine and ESYO has an amazing international reputation,” Abelin said. “I was immediately interested. They’re young musicians … so open and so eager to discover new things.”

Compared to a regular professional orchestra where musicians sometimes might churn out the notes even if they are technically accurate, young players have often not ever played a particular work before.

More: Life & Arts

“They’re discovering new musical worlds of emotion and drama in music,” he said. “This is at the point when these are starting to happen. It’s a beautiful thing and it makes all the difference for me. It’s why my mentor, Claudio Abbado, is always establishing young orchestras … it’s the sparkle in their eyes.”

Abelin got his first taste of what’s to come when he conducted the orchestra at its June concert at Tanglewood.

“We’d done Beethoven’s ‘Egmont Overture’ and found it an extraordinary experience and how Beethoven grooved … how much rhythm and body there was in his music,” he said.

That piqued his interest in seeing if he could apply a concept in music called Soundpainting with the orchestra. Created in the 1970s by composer Walter Thompson, it uses hand and body gestures to tell the musicians not so much what to play as how to play, such as a gesture for a long tone, or to repeat notes, or to play all together. For example, the Soundpainter, who acts as the conductor, gives the flute section a gesture to play the same long tone, but the strings would be given a sign to play several notes very fast. Other gestures would involve the other players and finally the whole group.

“It’s a way of making music together immediately … an instant composition,” Abelin said. “When you do this, it builds a creative ensemble … to listen better, to experience out of the box, to get more freedom to be more creative.”

The concept has become so popular that more than 35 countries apply the approach. So Abelin brought Thompson to one of the ESYO rehearsals to introduce his methods. After a few demonstrations from Thompson, some of the musicians took up the challenge and acted as Soundpainters, Abelin said.

The concept is part of why he also chose the program for this concert: Beethoven’s Symphony #7, Verdi’s Overture to “Nabucco” and “Field Guide” by Gabriella Smith.

“Beethoven’s seventh is an amazing way to train their chops and it’s an unbelievable piece that celebrates dance, physicality and nature,” Abelin. “The Verdi is about storytelling … how it’s essential to quickly change character. There are long lines, phrases that must change and it’s important the sound even thematically reflects that. The Smith may have some surprises.”

As a composer, Smith went out in early mornings to swamps and meadows to hear what the insects and birds were saying and then translated those sounds for instruments. The result – as heard at the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s June concert – is dramatic and very successful. That’s something Abelin is depending on.

“Maybe after a five-minute warmup or even midway through the piece, we may do something unusual,” Abelin said with a chuckle. “The students will be the Soundpainters.”

Safety protocols at the hall suggest masks are not required but recommended.

Empire State Youth Orchestra

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30
WHERE: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall
MORE INFO: 518 -273-0038;

More: Life & Arts

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts, Life and Arts

Leave a Reply