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An ocean of musical opportunities

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More than 100 students and their teachers will arrive in Newport next week for four days of workshops and performances, a visit to the Oregon Coast Aquarium – and of course, ample time on the beach. They’ll stay in oceanfront hotels and dine on local cuisine. And it won’t cost them a dime – not even one raised through the usual fundraising sale of doughnuts or gift wrap.

It’s all part of the Oregon Coast Youth Symphony Festival, a program designed to support music in public schools, with priority admission given to those from underserved communities.

Students from six Oregon high school orchestras will participate in the third annual Oregon Coast Youth Symphony Festival, April 25-28 in Newport.
Students from five Oregon high school orchestras will participate in the third annual Oregon Coast Youth Symphony Festival, April 25-28 in Newport.

The idea for the festival – now in its third year – came from a handful of locals, including the late David Ogden Stiers, who were concerned about the loss of music programs in public schools, said Michael Dalton, chairman of the festival board of directors, retired Oregon State University professor, and a member of the Oregon Arts Commission.

“We were looking for some way we could help support music programs in our schools,” Dalton said. He noted that without school programs, parents who have the means will nevertheless provide private instruction. But for those without funds, some students “have no other opportunities. We have created this festival to meet that need. We don’t want it to be an obstacle, or for the school to have to sell 5,000 candy bars to be able to do something. It’s the heart of what we do.”

Schools pay only the cost of transportation to and from Newport. The festival pays for lodging and the professional conductors who lead the workshops. Local boosters provide food for the students and Local Ocean restaurant hosts the Conductor’s Dinner for conductors, teachers, and board members. The festival also partners with the aquarium, which provides free admission to students, who in exchange share their talent in trios and quartets by the entrance.

“Some kids have never been to Newport before,” Dalton said. “So they get that opportunity.” He noted that last year, students from one school said they had never heard another school orchestra perform. “Each year we have a university orchestra come and perform,” he added. “These are opportunities we are providing they don’t get any place else.”Combined symphonies from the Oregon Coast Youth Symphony Festival perform in 2018.

Students complete evaluations after the festivals. Thomas, a violinist, wrote, “I loved working in clinics because the quality of the clinicians was so high. I learned so much in an hour working with them and it gave me a totally new outlook on tone quality and my role in a symphony.”

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Another student, identified as Maria, wrote, “I am expecting to come back in 15 years to be a guest conductor.”

To be considered, schools submit a one-page application. The festival board selects participants based on criteria including whether the school is Title I (receiving federal funding to assist with the education of low-income students), if it’s attended previously, and its location.

“We try to get geographical balance,” Dalton said. “We try to ensure we have distribution across the state, not just the I-5 corridor.”

Adam Flatt
Adam Flatt

This year, five high schools will attend: Grants Pass; North Salem; Pendleton; Tigard, and West Linn. Music directors and workshop leaders are Adam Flatt, conductor of the Newport Symphony Orchestra at the Ocean, and special guest conductor Helen Cha-Pyo, artistic director of the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts and music director and conductor of the New Jersey Youth Symphony.

Helen Cha-Pyo
Helen Cha-Pyo

On Friday, April 26, Pendleton and Grants Pass high school orchestras will perform in the Newport Performing Arts Center, followed by the Willamette University Chamber Orchestra.

On Saturday evening, the scene shifts to the Newport Middle School gym with performances by North Salem, Tigard and West Linn students. The grand finale follows, featuring all of the high school string orchestras performing the first movement of Concerto Grosso No. 1 by Ernest Bloch and Iditarod by Soon Hee Newbold. The concerts are open to the public and admission is free.

“We could not do this without the in-kind support of the Newport community, including volunteer time,” Dalton said. “Newport is such a fabulous place to come to. With the ocean and beauty, it’s such a wonderful environment. We try not to jam-pack the schedule, and let the students have opportunity to walk the beach, R&R time.”

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pup Gus.

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