The Orange County Youth Symphony Orchestra takes a journey to joy
In art, as in life, there’s nothing like a first time.
For some 90 musicians of the Orange County Youth Symphony Orchestra, performing Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony before a sold-out house at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall last May was a first to beat all firsts.
The orchestra, now in its 45th season, is the subject of a new documentary that will air on PBS SoCal. It follows the young musicians’ year-long preparation of the Ninth, a supreme challenge even for professional orchestras.
With the Chapman Orchestra and choirs from UC Irvine and Chapman University joining the OCYSO, the Segerstrom stage brimmed with 300 musicians representing the most ambitious and important public performance in the youth orchestra’s history.
The idea of teenagers – the OCYSO is open to young musicians from eighth grade to the first year of college – attempting Beethoven’s Ninth may seem quixotic, especially given the academic pressures and social media distractions they face these days.
Moreover, at well over an hour, Beethoven’s score not only requires a large orchestra and choir, but four soloists as well. No wonderDaniel Wachs, the orchestra’s music director, paused when Dean Corey, outgoing president of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, suggested the OCYSO perform Beethoven’s Ninth as the culmination of the society’s “Beethoven: The Late Great” series.
“This is the Mount Everest of symphonic works,” said Wachs, who is also the director of orchestral studies at the conservatory of music at Chapman University. “I’ve heard professional orchestras who had trouble getting through it. At the same time, I had faith we could meet the challenge.”
Wachs said he was inspired by Corey’s selfless idea. “To end his 21-year tenure as the society”s president, Dean could have booked the Vienna Philharmonic,” Wachs said. “But he wanted the OCYSO. He said, ‘This is about the future of music. It’s in the hands of these kids.’”
Directed and produced by Evan Rosenberg, the documentary “Journey to Joy” portrays the orchestra’s work in bringing Beethoven’s daunting symphony up to concert level. At just under an hour, the film packs a lot in, including the orchestra’s audition and rehearsal process. The last half is devoted to the Ninth’s world famous, inspiring and incredibly complex “Ode to Joy” finale as performed at Segerstrom Hall last season.
“It’s so unique having young people tackle this icon of Western music,” Rosenberg said. “Initially, the kids didn’t feel the weight of it, but one of the surprises of doing this documentary was the level of understanding and feeling they eventually had for the music. It was beautiful seeing the build-up and all that feeling transformed into such an electric performance.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the students were not intimidated while performing under the glare of Rosenberg’s camera lens, though initially it added another level of pressure.
William Tsai, a cellist and high school senior, said he was “never super-confident” as a player. “As sitting principal, I was forced to break out of my shell and take the lead motivating my section,” Tsai said. “I felt self-conscious sitting in the front row while they were filming, but realized the camera shouldn’t change how we play, so I got over it.”
For Spencer Mangan, 16, who this season became co-concertmaster of the orchestra, practicing and performing before cameras was a minor issue. “The biggest challenge was working as a team to produce a coherent sound within the violin section itself and the entire orchestra,” Mangan said. “Figuring out how the music fits together, making it come alive – feeling the music together – that was pretty difficult.”
While not discounting the impact of being filmed, Deanna Pyeon, 18, principal flutist of the orchestra, said something more important was at stake. “We were more driven to impress Maestro Wachs and make him proud,” Pyeon said.
As the concert draws near and tension grows, some of the students begin joking in the documentary about a possible “maestro meltdown.” Luckily, no meltdown occurs.
But Wachs said he lost 18 pounds over the course of preparing the orchestra’s grand season finale, which also included the West Coast premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s “Frieze,” music inspired by Gustav Klimt’s famous Beethoven Frieze on display in Vienna. “It’s the greatest diet plan,” Wachs joked, “doing Beethoven’s Ninth with teenage musicians.”
Wachs may need to get his pants taken in again sooner than he thinks. For one thing, the orchestra’s Beethoven experience, and Rosenberg’s documentary of the event, may boost the orchestra’s profile outside Orange County. For another, an upcoming OCYSO concert is almost as ambitious, and certainly as demanding, as its Beethoven project.
In January 2016, the ensemble, joined by the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra, will present the U.S. premiere of Turnage’s “Passchendaele” at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The work, an OCYSO co-commission, commemorates one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War.
The Disney Hall program also includes Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question” and Carl Nielsen’s primal four-movement Symphony No. 4, “The Inextinguishable,” composed during the Great War.
Like Beethoven’s Ninth, Nielsen’s score is ultimately an uplifting journey, a celebration of the human spirit’s will to come through.
And who better to convey such a life-affirming sentiment than young musicians?