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Harnessing the energy: Music training from front to back with PYP and David Hattner

Committed to excellence through music, the Portland Youth Philharmonic has a winning season every year – for 100 years!

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David Hattner and Portland Youth Philharmonic. Photo by Joe Cantrell.

The Portland Youth Philharmonic is celebrating its 100th anniversary and still going strong by emphasizing superior music making with top-notch leadership. 

Founded in 1924 as the Portland Junior Symphony, the PYP has always maintained the highest standards. The orchestra never closed shop even during the Great Depression when other arts organizations went dormant. David Hattner, PYP’s fifth Musical Director, took over the helm in 2007, and has continued the orchestra’s success story.

David Hattner. Photo by Allen S. Lefohn.

Year after year, every student who participates in PYP goes on to college, conservatory, or military academy. Some even matriculate to the most prestigious schools. 

“Of last year’s class of thirty graduating musicians, two went to Yale, one to Cornell, one to MIT, one to Princeton, and one to Stanford,” said Hattner, “And that’s just a normal year for us.”


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The discipline required to play in the PYP is a terrific recipe for academic achievement. 

“I tell parents that this is the best college preparatory program in our area,” added Hattner. “It just happens that we do music. We don’t take care of the standardized tests. But the way we teach and what we teach enhances the kid’s academic prowess. It does not interfere with academic studies, despite the number of hours it takes to participate in our orchestra. It makes the students better and more attractive candidates for upper-level education.”

Alumni of the PYP have gone on have careers in nearly every professional orchestra across this nation, including those at the highest level. Keith Buncke, for example, is the principal bassoonist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Many alumni teach music at schools, universities, and conservatories. Some become arts administrators–like flutist Sara Tiedemann, who is the Artistic Director of Third Angle New Music Ensemble. Of those who have pursued composing, the most notable by far is violist Kenji Bunch, whose works have been played by the Oregon Symphony and orchestras around the world.

A family of ensembles

Although PYP is the name of the orchestra, the PYP as an organization has a family of ensembles that includes two full symphony orchestras, a chamber orchestra, a wind ensemble, a string orchestra, and a percussion ensemble.

“We have excellent conductors all the way around,” noted Hattner. “Larry Johnson conducts the Portland Youth Conservatory Orchestra. Inés Voglar Belgique leads the Portland Youth String Ensemble, and Giancarlo Castro D’Addona directs the Portland Youth Wind Ensemble. They are all orchestral players like me and not originally trained as conductors.”

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Because of their professional orchestral backgrounds, the PYP can teach the full-spectrum of musicianship – from beginning students to young professionals.

“We know how to teach a young person what they have to learn to organize their playing and what needs to be going on in their head,” said Hattner. “Because we know that to play at a professional level is a way of thinking. You have to have highly organized and highly focused thinking. The concentration, the fierce, intense focus has to be rehearsed in. That’s the special sauce.”

During the Hattner era, PYP began a free, in-person double bass class that is taught by bass players from the Oregon Symphony. The class is open not only to members of the PYP organization but also anyone who is interested in learning double bass, including students who already play bass guitar and want to explore upright bass. No experience is necessary to start, and participation in a PYP ensemble is not required.

Under Hattner, the PYP organization has also developed the Family Field Trip program (bringing middle and high-school band and orchestra classes to PYP subscription concerts at no cost), the Middle School Coaching Project (connecting Title 1 ensembles to professional coaches), and joined the Youth Orchestra Commissioning Initiative, which has remarkably commissioned thirty-one works so far. In 2009, Hattner founded Camerata PYP, its top-tier string ensemble, which recently gave the world premiere of Jessica Meyer’s Because I Will Not Despair and received high praise for its performance from the New York-based composer.

To help cover the financial cost of participating in a PYP ensemble, the organization offers financial aid to any musician who needs financial assistance. No musician is turned away for lack of ability to pay. 

Another cool thing is the Peer Mentor Program, which pairs middle school music students with experienced PYP musicians for free or low cost, half-hour private music lessons on their instruments. But even within the PYP ensembles, older students help the younger ones. For example, double bass phenom Maggie Carter, who will attend the Curtis Institute of Music next year, performed with much younger kids during a concert last season.

The PYP also does two children’s concerts at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and the Portland Youth Conservatory Orchestra does one. Over eleven thousand kids are bussed to the performances, and sections of the orchestra are required to prepare the demonstration piece for their instrument. 

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For its subscription concerts, the PYP has a full slate that will keep its musicians very busy. Hattner has become adept at finding just the right blend of challenging works.

“PYP is a serious artistic endeavor whose programmatic content is worth your attention,” remarked Hattner. “We do unique programming that is not a derivative of what another group is doing. It’s music that you won’t hear elsewhere.”

Hattner and the PYP will kick off its centennial season on November 11th at the Schnitz with Anna Clyne’s This Midnight Hour.

“The Clyne piece is a Twentieth Century Night on Bald Mountain,” said Hattner. “People love scary music. It is dark and stormy with unusual touches in the orchestration. We will also play Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7, which the orchestra has never done. It’s the most difficult piece to assemble that Dvořák ever wrote. It requires lots of counting because it is complicated metrically and has long phrases. Most youth orchestras don’t attempt it. We will also perform Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto with Nolan Tu, our concerto competition winner. By the way, Portland Piano International handles the competition for us.”

Every year since 1961, the PYP has done its Concert-at-Christmas program the day after Christmas. This concert at the Schnitz features the family of PYP ensembles plus the alumni orchestra. In this year’s edition, Hattner will lead the orchestra in James Stephenson’s ROAR and John Philip Sousa’s Manhattan Beach. Former PYP Musical Director Huw Edwards returns to conduct the Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture

The PYP returns to the Schnitz on Mar 2 to play Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony.

“We performed the Gaelic Symphony in 2019 and put in on YouTube where it has been very popular with over thirty-five thousand views,” said Hattner. “It’s a long symphony, and you have to keep the tempos moving. We will also play Jessie Montgomery’s Strum, and the Imani Winds will be our soloists for Jeff Scott’s Paradise Valley Serenade, which is a concerto for wind quintet and orchestra. He wrote it for the Detroit Symphony, and they played it right before the pandemic hit. It will be a premiere for Imani and PYP, and we will take it on tour.”

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You heard that right. The PYP will celebrate its centennial with a tour of the East Coast in March. They, and the Imani Winds, will play at the Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland, the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, and at the Mechanics Hall in Worchester, Massachusetts. 

“Our regular closing concert on May 5th at the Schnitz will be shared with all of the groups,” said Hattner. “They will play works that we have commissioned for the hundredth anniversary. The Portland Youth String Ensemble will play a new symphony written by Polina Nazaykinskaya. Giancarlo Castro D’Addona will write a piece for the Portland Youth Wind Ensemble, and the Conservatory Orchestra will play an adaptation of Celilo Falls by Nancy Ives. Plus the PYP will play with the winner of its concerto competition.”

In honor of its anniversary, the PYP has added an extra concert on May 31st.

“We will have a movement of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony,” noted Hattner, “which was on the very first concert in 1925. Huw has the Academic Festival Overture and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. I will conduct Strum. And a special version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with Trevor Novak and Thomas Lauderdale as the pianists.”

The PYP Camerata will perform in January at the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, and it will also collaborate with the Oregon Repertory Singers on its program at the Reser in April.

“Sometimes people ask me how I bring out the energy in youth orchestras,” remarked Hattner. “I don’t have to bring it out. It’s there! But you have to know how to harness the energy. If you don’t do that in the right way, you could have an explosion of energy with the sound going in all directions. What you want is a laser beam. A laser bean can cut through anything. It is focused and intense.”

Slowing things down

A key to Hattner’s rehearsal technique is to slow things down.

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“We always rehearse for the least experienced musician in the room,” said Hattner. “We slow it way down and go over everything. The strings practice separately for two and a half hours every week on Saturdays.”

But sometimes Hattner throws in a curve ball.

“We have reverse-seating-Saturday sessions where the principals are in the back and the youngest players are in the front,” said Hattner with a glint in his eye. “We slow it down even more. They think, my God, he’s going to kill us all! I’ve seen some very terrified people. We make sure that you are making the sound necessary. You have to articulate and play clearly. You have to project your thoughts. You have to learn the music thoroughly, because next year, you will have to lead the new musicians.” 

All of this training from the front row to the back adds to the PYP legacy.

“My teacher used to say that people go through their whole lives and never have the chance to be part of something that is excellent or become excellent at something,” said Hattner, “but that is what we do at PYP. We are Portland’s orchestra, because we take local people and raise them up. It is very hard work, but it is totally rewarding. We have a winning season every year!”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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