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‘Music has to fill the soul and be fun’: The future of the industry with MYS and Raúl Gómez-Rojas

Metropolitan Youth Symphony emphasizes fun and enjoyment in music-making

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Raúl Gómez-Rojas and MYS string players. Photo by Gómez-Rojas.
Raúl Gómez-Rojas and MYS string players. Photo by Gómez-Rojas.

Now that the pandemic is receding into the background, the Metropolitan Youth Symphony is ready for liftoff once again. Since its founding in 1975 with 16 string players, MYS has grown exponentially to include 15 ensembles that typically serve over 400 students in Portland and Hillsboro. Led by Raúl Gómez-Rojas, who is in his eighth year as music director, MYS offers an array of classical and jazz groups that can take kids from the basics to the pre-conservatory level.

A cornerstone of MYS’ success is how it appeals to children and young adults who want to make room for music in their lives.


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“The main MYS culture and mission,” said Gómez-Rojas via Zoom, “Is to be a place where students can achieve excellence through music and be inspired by their peers and conductors. There’s no upper limit to the artistic growth. We emphasize the mental health of students. They are pulled in many directions. The culture within classical music can become stressful and toxic. In the worst cases, practicing music is no longer fun. Music has to fill the soul and be fun.”

Raúl Gómez-Rojas.
Raúl Gómez-Rojas. Photo courtesy of MYS.

The emphasis on mental health of students is a factor that Gómez-Rojas makes crystal clear.

“The kids need to have a healthy environment that is conducive to true human and artistic growth and joy,” he remarked. “From my perspective, the mental health of the students is more important than how the orchestra sounds. A kid might have an important tennis tournament coming up and will miss some rehearsals. We step up to help him or her with that. It’s a gentle push forward. That’s the culture that we have.”

Gómez-Rojas helms the organization’s top-level Symphony Orchestra, which performs at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and the Newmark Theatre. It also undertakes an international tour, which in 2024 will travel to Spain and Portugal.

“The Symphony Orchestra has toured internationally every three years,” noted Gómez-Rojas. “Covid interrupted that. We went to Italy and Austria in 2019. We were due for a tour in 2022, but it was too risky because of the pandemic. We will travel to Spain and Portugal this coming summer. So after our November concert, our remaining concerts will be centered on the music for our tour, which will heavily feature Oregon composers.”

Sharing duties with composer-violist Kenji Bunch, Gómez-Rojas also directs the MYSfits, an ensemble drawn from the most advanced players in the string section of the Symphony Orchestra. The MYSfits perform music beyond the traditional “classical” realm, exploring funk, fiddle music, pop renditions, and other genres.

MYS has a pipeline of ensembles that can take a beginner all the way to the top. The journey begins with either the Portland Overture Strings, conducted by Brittany Newell, or Hillsboro Overture Strings, conducted by Eri Nogueira. Higher levels involve more skill and artistry, often supported by private lessons from outside the organization as well as the MYS staff of expert conductors: Erica Boland, Darian Todd, Marian Gutiérrez-Curiel, Paloma Griffin Hébert, Giancarlo Castro D’Addona, Adam Eccleston, Kevin Schlossman, and Christopher Brown.

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Access and assistance

To help with the cost of participating, MYS provides financial aid with tuition assistance. It even extends to students who are just starting out.

“Giving every child an opportunity to explore music is fundamentally important to MYS,” said Gómez-Rojas.  “Our music access program includes a tuition-free Beginning Strings program, in-school concerts to an anticipated 15 Title I schools this spring, along with coaching, instrument loans, and tuition assistance for students with limited resources.”

Music access includes partnerships with schools and other organizations.

“Right now, for example, we have a program at Faubion Elementary School in Portland and with Lincoln Street Elementary,” explained Gómez-Roja. “And in Northeast Portland, we have a program with the Multnomah County of Human Services that is geared toward students whose families cannot afford private lessons. It’s a two-year program that offers group instruction like Suzuki, but each student gets and individual lessons. By the end of those two years, the student is ready to join our entry-level ensemble, and they will join with full tuition assistance.”

“Now we are seeing kids who we have started from scratch are successfully auditioning into our groups,” continued Gómez-Rojas. “As they remain in the MYS structure they continue to get one thirty-minute individual, free lesson. I want to see those students join our international tours in six years. I have a similar background coming from Costa Rica. I got scholarships that helped me to learn.”

Upcoming concerts

The Symphony Orchestra’s season opening concert, called Music in Motion, will take place at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on November 12.

“Our Music in Motion concert is all about music and animation,” said Gómez-Rojas. “We will be playing music that has been used for animated films, and music that has been created for animated films. The way that a lot of people experience classical music is through film and animation and video games. It’s an entry way for many people to that sound world. So I found pieces that will provide an educational and pedagogical experience for the students and also be fun and attractive for concertgoers. I selected Night on Bald Mountain and Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which are used in the movie Fantasia.”

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Gómez-Rojas quickly connected music used in animated film to his own experience.

“I was born in 1984,” he reflected. “I was ten or eleven years old and in my early teen years when all those iconic Disney movies came out: Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin – with music by Alan Menken. They are masterpieces of American pieces. They walk the line between a Broadway musical and the vast, rich expanse of symphonic music. Menken often doesn’t get the credit he deserves. So, our concert will offer two suites from Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.  And we will feature Zach Galatis, principal piccolo with the Oregon Symphony, who is a fantastic vocalist. Zach will sing “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid in a version that was made for the Broadway musical. We will top that off with Joe Hisaish’s My Neighbor Totoro, which celebrates the magical world of animation.”

MYS has been involved in commissioning works as part of the Young Composers Project in a series called The Authentic Voice. Consequently, the Symphony Orchestra has given several world premieres of pieces by local young composers.

“It is really terrific that the Symphony Orchestra and our other ensembles play music by their peers,” remarked Gómez-Rojas. “So a wonderful idea for our fall concert came from Jeff Payne and Ryan Francis, who lead the Young Composers Project, to create a piece for an imaginary cartoon. They took five young composers who will collaborate on a brand-new piece of music. Those five young composers will figure out how to write it. We aren’t going to tell them. They will invent a story line for the music, and the Symphony Orchestra will give the world premiere of a piece that is about eight minutes of music for an imaginary cartoon.”

On January 9, the Symphony Orchestra under Gómez-Rojas will perform with sensational Portland-based vocalist Jimmie Herrod at the Newmark Theatre.  The concert includes world premieres by student composers of The Authentic Voice series in which they will arrange several of Herrod’s hit songs for orchestra. Also on the program is En la Alhambra by Spanish composer Tomás Bretón, Alentejana: Suite No.2 by Portuguese composer Luís de Freitas Branco, and she flies with her own wings by Portland’s own Kenji Bunch. It should be noted that the title of Bunch’s piece comes from the motto of the State of Oregon – Alis Volat Propiis.

The Symphony Orchestra returns to the Newmark Theatre on March 3 to present a newly commissioned piece by Nancy Ives, principal cellist of the Oregon Symphony, and the world premiere of a piece by student composer Charlie Martin as part of The Authentic Voice series.  In addition, the orchestra will perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral Symphony) and a piece that will highlight the winner of the annual MYS Concerto Competition. 

On June 16, the Symphony Orchestra will wrap up its season at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with a nature-inspired program. The concert includes Portland Beauty by Giancarlo Castro D’Addona, a brand-new piece by student composer Amir Avsker, Copland’s Appalachian Spring: Suite and Gerónimo Giménez’s Intermezzo from La Boda De Luis Alonso. The program also features one of the winners from the MYS Concerto Competition.

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“MYS is growing the pairs of ears for the future,” said Gómez-Rojas. “It is important to craft concert experiences that point to the future of what we believe classical music should be and continue to become. There’s a push for diversity, inclusion, and relevance, and it’s great to work with kids – who are the future of the industry.”

“I came to this country to go to grad school – to pursue violin performance with a scholarship,” he added. “But I can see myself in those kids. You can see their eyes and the eyes of their parents light up the first time they walk into the Schnitz. It’s always amazing!”

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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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