“D, D, D ... D, A, A,” calls out Christie-Jo Adams to the room of young string musicians who average about 10 years old at the Sinfonietta, or the first level of the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra program.
Adams, who has played with adult symphonies in Richmond and Petersburg and is an instructional specialist for fine arts at Richmond Public Schools, is reminding the children of the chords as they quickly run through songs such as “Burst” and “Night Shift” inside First Baptist Church on Monument Avenue.
They’re busy preparing for an upcoming, free youth concert on Saturday, May 7th held inside the Carpenter Theatre of the Dominion Energy Center. The concert will feature all four of the Richmond Symphony’s youth orchestra ensembles. The final performance will feature the youth concert orchestra and Richmond Symphony youth orchestra in a side-by-side performance of Copland's hoe-down from "Rodeo," so there will be over 100 musicians onstage.
"This is the first time that a youth orchestra concert will be open to the public, no ticket or social distancing required, since February of 2020," says Jennifer Tobin, youth orchestra manager and assistant director of education. "We will also be honoring our graduating seniors at this concert, as well as two retiring conductors, Becky Jilcott and Christie-Jo Adams."
Earlier in the day, the eldest level of high school students from the Richmond Youth Symphony Orchestra are practicing at Rhythm Hall of the Dominion Energy Center at 612 E. Grace Street. Conductor Daniel Myssyk, who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, works the students through their paces.
During a break, violinist Virginia Broughton smiles and says she’s glad she’ll get to play with her younger sister, Vivien, who is in the Youth Concert Orchestra, a step down in the pecking order. She’s also a violinist and they’ll be doing the theme from “Rodeo” at the upcoming concert on May 7.
“I really like the community here,” says Virginia, who is an 11th grader at the Center for Leadership, Government and Global Economics at Douglas S. Freeman High School in Henrico County.
Nearly 150 students from throughout the area participate in the music program, which is run by the Richmond Symphony, and all of the conductors and teachers have some association with it.
Since 1962, the Richmond Symphony has operated a robust, but little noticed program that brings classical music to young people. The aim is to introduce them to classical music, the discipline it involves, along with encouraging fellowship and love of art. Many may not pursue musical careers, but they take the lessons learned with them.
“From an artistic standpoint, I make it my mission to trigger my students’ imagination and make them play at a level they wouldn’t have thought possible,” says Myssyk, who is Canadian-American and is an assistant conductor with the Richmond Symphony. An annual highlight is when the big orchestra plays with the kids.
- Scott Elmquist
- Conductor Daniel Myssyk teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and is an assistant conductor with the Richmond Symphony.
Among the rules are that children must participate in their school music programs. Most also take private lessons as they move through the levels from the Sinfonietta, to the Cmaerata, the Youth Concert Orchestra and the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra.
The beginners’ level does not require auditions but musicians are expected to know basic chords. The other levels require auditions.
One of the players at the early Sinfonietta level is Chad Maclin who plays the cello. “He’s been playing it since fourth grade in Fairfax. He enjoys it very much,” says Teresa Maclin, his mother. She is a teacher and musician and the family moved to North Chesterfield several years ago. “He practices every day,” she says.
Another player who practices regularly is Johanna Kim, who started as a cellist in the first grade. The 12-year-old, fifth grader at Moody Middle School has advanced to the Camerata.
“She asked to play the cello. ‘She said, ‘Can I try it?’” her mother Kim recalls. She’s interested in some popular music but really likes classical. Among her favorite artists is famed cellist Yo Yo Ma, her mother says.
Ben Eubanks, a clarinetist, has been at it for five years, starting in junior high school. He initially wanted to play the bagpipes but somehow switched to the clarinet. Asked if he likes jazz, he says he does but his focus is classical. One reason is that playing the two types of music requires different muscle use. If he does one, he “can’t get them relaxed,” he says. Right now he’s focused on the May 7th concert.
“I think it’s a really good program,” he says. His parents, Peter and Lindsay Eubanks agree. “But it does require a lot of driving around,” Lindsay says.
Others brought that up. Tamara Broughton, mother of Vivien and Virginia, says she not only has to drive her daughters to two different locations of rehearsal, she also hauls them to field hockey and lacrosse. ‘We make it work,” she says.
Vivien was a starter in Sinfonietta and now plays violin in the Youth Concert Orchestra with Virginia in the older group. They’ll play together on stage on May 7th. Vivien, a student at St. Michael’s Episcopal School, is trying out this spring for the highest-level orchestra.
- Scott Elmquist
Curiously, few of these young musicians wants to make classical music a career except for Ben Eubanks, who spent a month training at Carnegie Hall in New York City last year.
Yet the steady discipline required of participants in the program is good preparation for further education and life skills. As Conductor Myssyk says: “The work is arduous but the payoff is something else! And as we get closer to a performance, you can feel the excitement building in the orchestra’s sound and the common desire to new artistic ground.”
The youth orchestra concert, which features all four youth orchestra ensembles, will be held on Saturday, May 7 at 4 p.m. in Carpenter Theatre of the Dominion Energy Center. Admission is free and open to the public; no ticket required.
- Scott Elmquist