The “s” at the end of its name is neither an error nor a redundancy.
Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras (MCYO) encompasses three full orchestras, a chamber ensemble, two string orchestras, small ensembles and chamber groups. They, in turn, are comprised of talented musicians in grades three through 12, who perform works from the classical repertoire — orchestra, opera and dance.
One of the musicians is Briana Lim, 16. She has been playing the oboe for about seven years and is currently in the Philharmonic, one of three MYCO orchestras. “This is my fourth year as part of MCYO,” said Lim. “I joined as a result of my then-teacher’s constant insistence that Philharmonic was the place to be … although it was a big sacrifice — driving 45 minutes to and from Strathmore on Wednesday nights.”
“Auditions, which take place every August, are a rigorous program,” said Kristofer Sanz, music director of MCYO and conductor of the Philharmonic. “We hear from about 1,000 kids each summer, and take about 475 for all the orchestras.”
Callie Wen, an 18-year-old Philharmonic member, has been playing violin for a dozen years. She joined MCYO in fourth grade, and remembers how “surprised” she was when she was accepted. “Playing in MCYO is one of the things I can say, without a trace of a doubt, that I’m passionate about,” Wen said. “I love coming to rehearsal each week and letting myself indulge in the music; it’s a welcome break from thinking about homework and stress.”
Each orchestra performs three times a year at The Music Center at Strathmore, while the Strings perform both there and in the community. Each of the full String Orchestras — composed of violins, violas and basses — has between 90 and 110 musicians.
Cooper Cromwell-Whitley, 17, joined the Philharmonic one year ago after playing tenor trombone for seven. “At that time, my private teacher recommended I audition, stating it was the strongest youth orchestra in Maryland,” he said.
Now the metropolitan area is “densely populated” with youth orchestras, such as the Damascus-based St. Cecelia, but this youth orchestra (MCYO) has been around the longest, Sanz noted.
Charles Petranek established MCYO in 1946; he wanted to start a youth orchestra program for talented young musicians. “Most high schools at the time had either a band or a string group, but not a full orchestra,” said Cheryl Jukes, executive director of the organization for the past 13 years. “So, this provided an opportunity for students to be trained in an actual full orchestra program.
The MCYO program strives to create a “seamless connection between the artistic and the educational experience,” she added. “It is highly regarded regionally and nationally as one of the country’s outstanding orchestra programs.”
MCYO has been a resident partner at Strathmore since 2005. Having Strathmore as home base allows MCYO to collaborate with other residents partner groups, including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Washington Performing Arts, National Philharmonic, Levine School of Music and CityDance Ensemble. On Strathmore’s 10th anniversary, the MCYO and Strathmore merged and MCYO became a program of Strathmore, “one of the cornerstones of Strathmore’s education department,” Jukes said.
“We all work together to come up with creative productions beyond the typical types of concerts presented by most youth orchestras,” she explained. “MCYO also performs in many Strathmore Presents productions, such as ‘Iron and Coal’ and ‘Black Violin.’ These are, again, experiences young musicians would not otherwise have the chance to be part of.”
“MCYO has shown me that students, with a lot of hard work and commitment, have the ability to be artists to create powerful music,” Lim said. “After every concert, I am grateful for the entire experience — from rehearsing at Strathmore to spending a Saturday at an orchestra intensive.”
Each conductor chooses the repertoire for the component of the MCYO he or she directs. Sometimes, the choices are challenging. At the 7 p.m. Dec. 1 concert, titled “Macrocosm: As the Earth Sings,” the Philharmonic and the Orchestra will play the Bruckner 4th Symphony, among other pieces. “The Bruckner 4th is a big deal for a youth orchestra to perform,” Sanz said. ”
“What makes MCYO special is the caliber of talent it attracts, both the quality of students auditioning and the artistic staff that works with and trains these young musicians,” Jukes observed. “MCYO has very high standards in the selection of students it accepts and for the polished performances it presents.
“And performing regularly at our home concert hall — the state-of-the-art Music Center at Strathmore — is in and of itself a unique opportunity for a youth group. It’s simply the best game in town. MCYO ensembles often sound like professional orchestras,” Jukes said.
Besides helping Wen “grow tremendously” as an individual musician, she said, “MCYO has allowed me to be surrounded by other passionate, dedicated musicians. It is incredibly inspiring to be part of group where each individual is working toward the same goal. As Mr. Sanz puts it, ‘Our 99 hearts beat together as one.’”
“In addition to training our musicians to perform music in the classical style, MCYO strives to expand students’ musical horizons by creating and presenting interesting and novel experiences, including commissioning and premiering new work and working with guest artists in the classical field, the new-music scene, jazz and the theater world,” Jukes said.
Upcoming MCYO concerts include the season opener, titled “Microcosm,” which features performances by all of MCYO’s Junior Ensembles — the Preparatory Strings, Chamber Strings, Young Artists and Chamber Ensembles — at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1, at The Music Center of Strathmore.
At the 7 p.m. “Macrocosm” concert, the Symphony and Philharmonic will perform works by Verdi, Schubert and Vivaldi as well as Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 and a few contemporary works.
Maestro Simeone Tartaglione will lead the Symphony and vocalists with the Catholic University of America Musical Theater Ensemble in a premiere of music from new work slated to go to Broadway. “Vanara,” a symphonic medley by award-winning composer Gianluca Cucchiara and lyricist Andrew James Whelan, Sanz said, “combines a lush, original score with fluid, cinematic storytelling and weaves together musical theater, contemporary dance, circus and multimedia innovation.”
Another premiere is the Philharmonic’s performance, conducted by Sanz, of Gareth Farr’s “Te Papa,” part of a Maori Trilogy. “This piece is a recognition of the similarities and differences of all cultures,” said Sanz. “It is a musical analogy to my ideal that cultures can co-exist without overshadowing or changing one another. Finally, it is a musical celebration of the fact that we have all ended up here on the same soil.”
An operatic work by Spanish composer and conductor Geronimo Gimenez, “La Boda [the wedding of] de Luis Alonso,” a one-act lyrical sketch (zarzuela) divided into three scenes, in verse is on the Philharmonic program as well.
MCYO “isn’t afraid to explore different cultures, different genres, uncommon repertoire pairings and the vast world of music around us. Creative and unusual presentations such as these are what make us such a unique, inspiring and vibrant experience for young musicians,” Jukes said.
Also inspiring are one’s fellow musicians. “Playing in a section of musicians that all want to become professional musicians … has forced me to dig deeper into my own practice,” Cromwell-Whitley said. “I feel incredibly lucky to have developed a better musical ear while building friendships with the members of my section that I hope will last a lifetime.”
The Music Center at Strathmore is located at 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets for these concerts range from $15 to $25, with discounts for ages 18 and younger, groups and senior citizens (with ID). Visit www.strathmore.org or call 301-581-5100.
Additional MCYO concert dates include: Chamber Music Program Recital #1, with MCYO’s various chamber-music groups, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18 at AMP by Strathmore, 11810 Grand Park Ave., North Bethesda; and Future Stars & Chamber Music Program Recital #2, 7 and 7:30 p.m., respectively, at The Music Center at Strathmore. Admission to these concerts is free.