The Empire State Youth Orchestra plays so well that composer Samuel Adler never wondered if the orchestra’s 99 musicians would have the skills to play his new work, “A Bridge to Understanding.”
“The piece is not for youth orchestra,” Adler said. “It’s just for orchestra. The ESYO doesn’t have any terrible limitations.”
Adler’s piece is one of nine new works that ESYO commissioned that will be performed on Saturday as part of the New Music for a New Generation Festival. The eight other works and the ensemble that will perform them will be Dana Wilson’s “Water, Water” for the 86-piece Repertory Orchestra; Janice Macaulay’s “Changing Gears” for the 44-piece String Ensemble; Bill Cunliffe’s “O.C.” for the 18-piece Jazz Ensemble; Marc Vinci’s “Release the Sunshine” for the 17-piece Jazz Ensemble number 2; Lynn Glassock’s “Twisted Proverbs” for the 11-piece Percussion Ensemble; Ney Rosauro’s “Mother Earth, Father Sky” for the 12-piece Repertory Percussion Ensemble; Richard Albagli’s “Harry’s Final Journey” for the 9-piece Junior Percussion Ensemble; and “Diverse Dances” by Aldo Forte and Brant Karrick for the 40-piece Wind Orchestra.
Although commissions have been done before, the idea for an all-day festival with a bevy of new works belongs to ESYO executive director Susan Brome and ESYO conductor Helen Cha-Pyo. In 2006, the New York State Music Fund announced its second round of grant applications would go to music of all kinds from a wide range of residents. The grants, whose money comes from the recording industry, would be substantial.
“Let’s dream a little bit,” Brome said she told Cha-Pyo.
They decided they wanted to involve all the ESYO ensembles in programs of new music. In December 2006, they learned the ESYO had received what they’d asked for: $100,000. ESYO also received additional funds from the New York State Council on the Arts through its Community Art$ Grant from the Arts Center of the Capital Region to do a family concert. The next step was to ask each ensemble director which composer they wanted to work with and amazingly, with only one exception, every composer agreed.
Many of the composers had never heard their respective ensembles perform. In Adler’s case, he listened to some tapes of the orchestra. But, he said, he knew Cha-Pyo from the Eastman School of Music, where she’d been one of his students. Cha-Pyo has conducted the ESYO since 2002.
“When I write for an orchestra, I never write for a level. Students at that age rise to the challenge. They’ll enjoy the music and reach for it,” he said.
Forte also had never heard the wind band perform. Its conductor, Robert Hansbrough, sent him a recording and suggested Forte might write a piece on a grade 5 level, which is considered highly skilled but not at a freshman conservatory level of grade six and beyond. Forte, who has written several pieces for young musicians and many pieces for professional and military wind ensembles, decided instead to write a work that would have a lot of color.
“The group is very accomplished. I didn’t hold back,” Forte said from Texas.
Writing for band is, however, very different from writing for an orchestra because there are no strings that can play continuously, he said. So he looks for those tone colors within the family of instruments that he’s working with that can substitute. In place of basses, Forte uses the trombones for depth. Euphoniums and unison saxophones can replace the cellos’ mellow tones.
But after writing 50 percent of the work, Forte became ill and called in Karrick to finish the work. Fortunately, Karrick was able to work within Forte’s style, which includes not using key signatures, so there’s a roving tonality, Forte said. To make sure it all worked, Forte input the music into a computer software program and played it back for his girlfriend, Sue Charles, who hears all his work first.
“I came to technology kicking and screaming because I’d always written by hand,” he said laughing. “But it does save time. And Sue’s my muse.”
Forte’s piece is three dances. Adler’s work is based on folk songs, one of which is a Czech folk song.
European tour in April
The orchestra will do a week tour in April to Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic and will play Adler’s piece. Adler will also accompany the orchestra on tour.
“I don’t know if the folk song is known in Prague,” he said, “but it’s a very old and very beautiful folk song.”
His work has a lot of energy and a different style than the traditional repertoire the orchestra usually plays. But from the two rehearsals that he’s heard, the musicians were handling the new vocabulary very well, he said.
“They’re used to hearing contemporary music — so it’s not a shock,” Adler said.
The orchestra’s April tour will be the fourth tour it has made to Europe since its founding in 1979. This tour will include a joint concert with a youth orchestra in Ilmenau, Germany, and performances in Bach’s birthplace of Eisenach, Germany, and the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria.
Other grants this year included a three-year $30,000 challenge grant from the Schenectady Foundation to support the ESYO’s City Strings Training program in three schools in Schenectady and two schools in Albany to cover lessons for about 21 children in middle school.
Another $5,000 came from the Howard & Bush Foundation to start City Brass for about 14 children in a Troy middle school, which will begin in September.
The final concert of the season is the traditional June concert at Tanglewood.
Here is the schedule for the New Music for a New Generation on Saturday:
-- 1 p.m. at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall — ESYO with the Magic Circle Mime Company in Mozart to John Williams. $5; 18 and under, $2.
-- 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. at Gurley Hall, Russell Sage College, Troy — 45-minute workshops with composers and mimes on composing and movement. $5.
-- 4 p.m. at Buchman Pavilion, Russell Sage College — Composer Samuel Adler on music education. Free.
-- 7 p.m. at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall — Concert with all ensembles in world premieres. $15, $10.
Empire State Youth Orchestra
WHAT: New Music for a New Generation Festival
WHERE: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall and Russell Sage College
WHEN: 1 to 7 p.m. Saturday (see schedule at end of story)
HOW MUCH: $15 to $5 per concert
MORE INFO: 382-7581 or 273-0038