Portland Youth Philharmonic: Creative Response

Pandemic inspires youth orchestra to create a new music festival and commissioning program featuring new music by diverse voices

Pandemic inspires youth orchestra to create a new music festival and commissioning program featuring new music by diverse voices

Art is all about creativity, so when the pandemic struck, Portland Youth Philharmonic, facing cancellation of in-person classes and concerts, got creative. The organization created a commissioning program that resulted in the creation of more than a dozen brand new compositions — and also created a multi-orchestra commissioning initiative to help fund them, and a brand new virtual festival to showcase them. 

David Hattner leads Portland Youth Philharmonic. Photo: Bev Standish. 

This Saturday and Sunday, PYP’s two-day New Music Festival features world premieres of 14 brand new works composed primarily by women and musicians of color, and commissioned especially for the orchestra’s 97th concert season as part of its recently launched Youth Orchestra Commissioning Initiative (YOCI).

What better way to show diverse young Oregon musicians and composers that great music isn’t written only by the long-dead white European males whose works have so long dominated orchestra programs? It can also be made by diverse people who live and create here and now. And though arising out of an emergency, these forward-looking changes in approach and even philosophy will persist, permanently enriching PYP’s performances and educational work.

Refreshing the Repertoire 

When PYP’s artistic staff met last spring to figure out how to respond to the pandemic, they all proposed and discussed many options. Eventually they settled on Artistic Director David Hattner’s idea of a concert that could be created by the remote means imposed by social distancing requirements. 

Now, what music would they play? “Because we’re educational, it’s part of our job to make sure they play music by some of the best known and most famous composers,” Hattner says. “And then we’ve always done our share of contemporary composers composers from the region, and major works by American composers that fell through the cracks.”


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But in the midst of America’s exploding social turmoil, how could they look backward to classical music’s traditional Ye Olde European repertoire? Now, Hattner saw a way to turn crisis into opportunity — by sponsoring the a new music festival devoted to new American music by diverse composers, and specifically tailored to the needs of teenaged student performers.

That’s a big challenge for a single youth orchestra, but Hattner knew that PYP wouldn’t be the only organization looking for a repertoire refresh. “Other youth orchestras want new repertoire from new voices too,” he says. Why not get them to join the fun (and the commissioning fee)? Thus was born the idea of the YOCI consortium to sponsor and perform new music for youth orchestras. 

Hattner knew plenty of composers from his days playing clarinet in New York’s new music scene. And PYP’s Ines Voglar-Belgique, a member and former artistic director of Portland new music ensemble Fear No Music, had a line on other candidates. To help balance out the overwhelmingly white and male demographic of classical composers, “we wanted the initiative’s composers to be primarily women and people of color,” Hattner explains. Almost every composer — many grateful for their own youth ensemble training — they contacted was eager to participate despite the modest fee PYP could afford to offer. 

David Hattner conceived the new music initiative. Photo: Bev Standish.

One of them is Portland’s Deena T. Grossman, whose flute quartet Apart together: Together apart was actually inspired by PYP’s response to the the pandemic that inspired the festival. Making music together, even while apart, seemed an almost an act of artistic defiance against the virus that separated so many of us from each other — including Grosman and her dying father, whom she wasn’t able to see until the very end of his life. 

Together, apart — she repeated those two words rhythmically, over and over. “I used both the rhythm and the meaning of the words to shape melodies and harmonies,” she explains, with “the performers actually speaking those words in rhythm in various ways.” For example, the tones accompanying the two syllables of “apart” are separated by a pretty big leap. 

Deena T. Grossman

“I am Apart from the flutists, yet they can be Together with me, as I send my music to them to see, hear and learn,” Grossman wrote in a program note. “I composed the quartet knowing they will have a click track to guide them as they record their part alone. Each flutist is Apart from the others, yet their playing will be combined Together to make a whole, shimmering presence in our world, to illuminate and connect us more fully in our present time.”

They wound up with 14 composers creating new music for the nearly 300-member PYP and its various subset ensembles. The students recorded their parts at home on audio and video, and a PYP video editor compiled those recordings into ensemble or orchestra performances. Commissioned composers include Efraín Amaya, Lauren Bernofsky, Laura Brackney, Giancarlo Castro D’Addona, PYP alumna Kate Davis, Darrell Grant, Grossman, Jessica Meyer, Polina Nazaykinskaya, Keyla Orozco, Imani Winds’s Jeff Scott, and James M. Stephenson.

Tailor Made to Order 

Portland Youth Philharmonic is an educational as well as performing institution, so Hattner and his team told each composer the age, grade level (classical music works for students are generally assigned a number essentially describing its appropriateness for a given level of study, akin to a golfer’s handicap) and makeup of each ensemble’s membership and what they’d been working on recently, so the composers could tailor their new music specifically to their skill set. Some keys are easier to play in than others, for example. 

Younger players in the string ensembles received works of similar degrees of difficulty, while older players received a piece written for one of various sections of the orchestra. PYP’s video editor combined those sections into a full orchestral piece. Each composition contains at most 10 players, and each musician play about 10 minutes on screen, with a new set of musicians entering every 90 seconds or so. “Each player will have a moment to play his or her part on screen,” Hattner promises. 

The musicians all recorded their parts at home, using whatever technology they had at hand. Even basic cellphones are advanced enough these days to provide usable recordings. “Phones produce remarkably decent sounding recordings,” Hattner says, “far better than the [Sony] Pro Walkman of my college years,” which he and other young players used to record audition tapes for orchestras and ensembles.

Another constraint because the parts would be recorded individually rather than with other musicians, Hattner asked composers to avoid “things like subtle adjustment of tempos and rubato,” the little adjustments that ensembles make together to the printed score that make a performance expressive rather than robotic. To make it easier for musicians to stay on tempo, PYP provided a click track that they could listen to via earphones while recording their parts. 

On the other hand, separate recording actually made some musical techniques easier, like counterpoint, where musicians play different, intertwined melodies simultaneously. For young musicians, “that can be hard to sort out live,” Hattner explains. “But when they’re assembled later, that kind of writing can be easier to pull off in this format than live.”

For Grossman, “what that means musically is the parts need to be rhythmically clear, and when there’s polyphony [several melodies happening simultaneously] and harmony, it all has to work to the same beat.” 

Educational Enhancements

Portland Youth Philharmonic is as much about education and community as performance. Online distance learning has affected how PYP’s music teachers educate their young musicians, and how they’re able to connect with each other. 

“The nice thing about PYP is the group experience,” Hattner says. “Everyone gets treated the same. We’ve always been a place where students can safely get to be around motivated peers who have similar goals musically and academically. We’re prepping students to succeed in college as academic majors. They appreciate the rigor of our program and how we ask them to do a lot of finesse and detailed concentration. It’s a lot, but not only don’t we have attendance problems, but our musicians also have the most success in the college admissions arena.”

Portland Youth Philharmonic. Photo: Brian Clark.

This year’s changes forced by the pandemic have changed all that. For nearly a century, every year before this one, they’d have spent the fall helping create a new orchestra composed of a mix of new and returning musicians, and preparing to play full compositions in a full orchestral concert. 

Instead, they’re working from home on a single short piece — but because it’s recorded, and they have to get it right for the recording to work, “the standard is much higher than for any stretch of a 90-minute concert,” Hattner explains. “It’s distilled to a very potent need to be prepared. They can try it several times until they get it right, but you only get so many chances.” 

That’s not the only difference for the students or the teaching staff. “Instead of rehearsing,“ Hattner says, “we’re coaching. We hear them play a part [online], make suggestions, then move on to the next part. It’s more of a master class style.” 

Giancarlo Castro D’Addona

One of those coaches is also one of the composers on the program, Giancarlo Castro D’Addona. His new work Diversity introduces the brass and woodwind ensembles to several of the many varied rhythms and styles of music from Central and South America. “By mixing different musical genres, it makes students want to explore them, achieving different perspectives, and enriching their musical culture,” he says. “I love how they are enjoying learning my piece. Sometimes I watch them making small movements on the screen following the beat of the music and I can perceive in each rehearsal how they are improving more and more. Although it is difficult to get the energy and connection that is created in the in-person rehearsals along with the technological limitation due to the fact that we cannot play at the same time and listen to each other, the students are doing their best and are achieving incredible things.”

In spite of the changes, “the kids are doing surprisingly and amazingly well,” Hattner says. “It’s been encouraging. They’re grateful that PYP is back and at least in some ways still resembles what PYP stands for. And we’ve attracted some performers who might not have taken the chance to join because of the commute” to rehearsals. 

Another advantage comes from working with living composers (via Zoom meetings) instead of the usual dead ones. “We’re trying to figure out technical things — why is this chord here, why is this rhythm important? — as well as how to interpret them,” Hattner says. “It’s more challenging just because we don’t get to play together now, but we’re still always trying to figure out what is the meaning of this piece so we can give an accurate representation. So when they meet the composers, they can actually ask what does their piece mean.” 

For example, renowned Portland pianist, professor and composer Darrell Grant wrote a new clarinet piece that helps the students learn the vocabulary of jazz, and much of what makes jazz magic can’t be confined to a printed score. But the student performers could ask Grant directly for tips on how to convey what he wanted to express in ways that a score can’t.

Darrell Grant

Beyond helping the young players understand the the piece they’re working on, working with living composers offers longer-lasting benefits. “When you say ‘composer,’ students might think of a figure on a marble bust, a picture in a book,” Hattner says. “Something that’s cold, remote, that doesn’t have blood in its veins, doesn’t have bills due. They get to see that these are just real people who have real experiences.” And that in turn might make it easier for some students to imagine that they, too, might be able to compose their own music.

“This project has been fundamental to the organization’s educational mission because it allows us to discover a diverse range of composers whose works enrich the chamber repertoire not only of our organization but also of orchestral organizations throughout the United States,” explains Castro, who is also a conductor/teacher with PYP, Metropolitan Youth Symphony and BRAVO Youth Orchestra. “It is a great opportunity for students to work directly with the composers and to understand more precisely the qualities and structure of each musical work. This makes it even more inspiring for our students.”

It’s been inspiring for Castro as a conductor and teacher, too. “Composing for young artists is a wonderful and challenging experience. Each group has a different configuration and characteristics, so this allows me to develop different sounds and elements that enhance the qualities of each ensemble. It is very interesting how the sounds become different depending on the ensemble configuration. Working with them also as a conductor helps me get to know them better as an ensemble and individually.”

Grossman, who taught music in elementary schools for many years, also relished the unusual challenge of writing individual parts to suit the skill levels of the students playing her piece, rather than the usual professionals. She also enjoyed connecting with them, answering their questions about what inspired her music, and asking them about “how this time of enforced separateness had affected them,” she says. 

Still, she acknowledges, remote learning can’t fully replace the educational experience of creating music together. “When students have opportunities to make music together in person, it’s just the most deep and humanizing experience,” says Grossman, who taught elementary school music for many years. “There’s no other experience like that, to be able to sing or dance or play in a band or sing in a choir. When we’re not in a pandemic, PYP gives student performers a chance to experience that great joy and definite challenges. How do you play with a group and be responsible to a group? You have to practice because if don’t know your part, you let down your section and partners. That web of connections is so precious and adds so much to someone’s life. The fact that David Hattner’s figured out a way for these students to continue, even though they don’t have in-person opportunities, is a great service to all the students, and to the composers he’s commissioned works from.”

Forward Thinking

Even as the fall semester culminates in this weekend’s concert, PYP is planning its next steps. Its ever-popular Concert at Christmas will also be virtual, and shorter than usual. “We’re trying to play a lighter, happier show featuring some songs and pieces suggested by musicians themselves, in some fresh arrangements,” Hattner says.

And the commissioning program forges ahead, with donations already coming in to support new compositions, some of which PYP will perform in its March concert. “And with our 100th anniversary just around the corner, some of these folks are going to be part of it,” he says.

Who knows when they’ll be able to perform those new works for a live audience, or work together again to create the music. But whenever that happens, all future PYP musicians will benefit from the creative changes the pandemic forced. The orchestra will be different. 

“I think it’s been an awakening fo those of us who are wondering what symphonic programming needs to look like in the future,” says Hattner, who in his youth experienced his share of tedious new music concerts at the end of the bad old days of thorny modernism. He credits much of contemporary classical music’s recent popularity and accessibility to the increasing diversity of its composers.

“It’s evolved so much because new voices have been let in,” he says. When normality resumes, we’ll still play Beethoven, Dvorak and Stravinsky — but now, we’ll also know where to look when we need something new. Who’s writing now? What do they have to say about these times and this moment? Let’s look off the beaten path at composers of color and women who’ve struggled to get onto concert programs. As it turns out, all these pieces turned out great, far beyond our expectations. That’s been a very gratifying lesson.”

Tune into this weekend’s Portland Youth Philharmonic’s New Music Festival here, and learn more about its Youth Orchestra Commissioning Initiative here.

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