In the 11 years that Helen Cha-Pyo has been the Empire State Youth Orchestra’s music director, every concert’s program — including this Saturday’s — has been new to the musicians. This is an unending delight for Cha-Pyo.
“It gets me going. It’s where I get my energy,” she said. “I never get bored because they don’t know the piece. Even if I’ve done the piece 10 times before, I learn so much by teaching it over and over again.”
For this next concert, Cha-Pyo chose two pieces that are especially good as teaching tools: Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture” and Barber’s “Second Essay.”
“The Barber is difficult with his style. It’s a powerful piece but it can get dry,” she said. “It’s like reading a Ph.D. dissertation. I tell them they must dig into it with their ideas. To play the notes they must move the listener and tap into all their senses. This compares with the Brahms, which has funky melodies they can grab onto.”
Empire State Youth Orchestra
WHERE: Troy Savings Banks Music Hall, 30 Second St., Troy
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $20, $10
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 is also on tap.
“It’s really hard,” Cha-Pyo said. “I try to do at least two symphonies a year, but Tchaikovsky I’ve shied away from because you need a lush sound.”
In professional orchestras, musicians, especially string players, have those expensive instruments that can project, but the students don’t have that quality of instrument.
“So we try to fill that lushness by having more numbers,” she said.
This year the orchestra is large, with 102 players. That number fluctuates every season. Annual auditions are required even if a student has played in the orchestra before. Cha-Pyo said the auditions are necessary because the students must prove they meet the orchestra’s high standards.
Some years she doesn’t get enough of an instrument, such as trombones, so she must hire a professional. Other years, she gets too many. That happened this year when she had six more cellists than she could take.
“I gave them the option to play in the repertory orchestra,” she said. “You never know from year to year what it will be.”
Over time, she’s noticed that playing levels rise each year. She credits that with more available technology, such as the numerous YouTube spots of up-and-coming young artists, more of the students can listen to these performances and see what it takes to be competitive. Composers, too, are pushing for higher levels, which the players are adapting to. This season, the orchestra didn’t have to look far to hear how one of their own has excelled.
Cellist Jacob Efthimiou, who has played cello for 10 years and been in the orchestra for three years, won the recent Lois Lyman Concerto Competition, which gives him the chance to solo with the orchestra at this concert.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Efthimiou said. “I’ve always watched the winners of the competition and looked up to them. It’s hard to believe that I’m one of them now.”
He’ll perform the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto.
“I’ve been working on the Saint-Saëns for about two years. My teacher had suggested it and I love it,” he said.
The piece is about 18 minutes long, with three movements that are done as one. Efthimiou said the final section is the trickiest and most challenging and is the one he’s had to practice the most, but memorizing it all has made it easier for him to get into the performance.
“It’s different being in front of the orchestra,” he said. “But it’s not hard to do because the orchestra and Helen follow along quite well.”
It’s not the first time he has been a soloist. Last summer he won the concerto competition at the NY Summer Music Festival at Oneonta, which led to him playing Offenbach’s rarely performed “Jacqueline’s Tears.”
This is all encouraging for him, he said, since he would like to pursue a music career, possibly by combining that with math as a college double major.
Cha-Pyo said Efthimiou is proving to be an adept soloist.
“He’s a very mature person and a sensational player,” she said. “He knows what he wants but he is also flexible. He’s doing a great job but the orchestra has work.”
Most of those issues are with dynamics to allow Efthimiou’s fast technical passages to be heard better. But that’s nothing compared to the efforts the musicians will have to make in the Tchaikovsky.
The triple meter and minor mode in the first movement are not things the players do well.
“These are rhythmic challenges from beginning to end. It’s hard to lilt without slowing down. It’s a nightmare,” Cha-Pyo said.
This difficulty with triplets and minor keys for young western musicians came as a surprise to her when she first came to this country at age 12 from South Korea.
“I grew up singing in minor modes and triplets,” she said. “Three means a lot in Korea. But a teacher I had at the Eastman School said it was an epidemic.”
By comparison, the fourth movement, which is in duple time, the players fly through, she said. The second movement has string pizzicato, which is fun, but she must be careful to not rush and keep the movement’s character. The third must be just the right fast tempo, quick enough but not so quick that the musicians can’t play all the notes. Overall, the piece, which lasts 45 minutes, is taxing on wind players, especially the brass.
“They need stamina. It’s hard on young embouchures. They give up,” she said.
The big thing about playing Tchaikovsky is the emotional challenge. To help them understand what’s involved, Cha-Pyo tells them about the composer’s struggles not only as a composer but one who struggled with his homosexuality.
“Teens understand about trying to find identity and work within a system and having so many rules to follow,” she said. “It taps into their emotional core, their authentic part of their being emotional and pouring their hearts out.”
On a more pragmatic issue, however, is that this large orchestra must find a way to fit onto the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall stage.
“We’ll be squeezed in there but with no piano or harp, I’m hoping there will be a little more space,” Cha-Pyo said laughing.
“We must think of every inch. We will make it happen but they must claim those 5 inches of elbow space. I tell them they must stand up for themselves. We will do whatever it takes to make it happen.”