It’s one thing to read about “a group of talented musicians.” It’s quite another to actually see them, hear them and marvel at their skills.
Attending a concert by the Western Connecticut Youth Orchestra is like that. You can hear the youthful intensity and see the concentrated desire for perfection on the faces of the musicians. Founded in 2002 as the Ridgefield Symphony Youth Orchestra by Gina Wilson and Carrie Moore, there were 25 young musicians who began weekly rehearsals and played their debut concert in 2003. Two years later, a string ensemble was added, and the Ridgefield Symphony Youth Orchestra became the Western Connecticut Youth Orchestra, to reflect the expansion to a larger regional area. A wind ensemble was added and finally, the WCYO Symphony Orchestra.
Today, nearly 90 young musicians, ages 8 to 18, from 12 towns in Connecticut and New York are part of the WCYO. In 12 years, the orchestra has grown from one ensemble to three. They have performed side-by-side with the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra, at Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls and concert tours to Austria, Sweden and Paris. They study under private teachers and join the orchestra through auditions. The need to excel is strong, and the student musicians constantly work to achieve the sound the composer intended and to interpret it creatively. The repertoire ranges from classical to contemporary.
Justin Elkins, String Ensemble conductor, is a cellist and devoted music educator. Albert Montecalvo, the Wind Ensemble conductor, has over 30 years of teaching experience and is a drummer and percussionist. Petko Dimitrov was music director and Symphony Orchestra conductor for nine years before passing the baton to a new music director, Eric Mahl. As one of the musicians’ parents said “The musicians were good. Petko has made them great.” And, from another parent, “Petko has taught them more than music. He has taught them about life.”
A native of Bulgaria, Dimitrov has been leading an amazing musical life: assistant conductor of the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra and Symphony in C in Camden, N.J.; cover conductor of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. He has won many awards and has international recognition as music director of the of the New Symphony in Sofia, Bulgaria, and conductor and music director of Cavallo Classico, in Munich.
Maestro Dimitrov has exemplified the orchestra’s mission: to provide an opportunity for young musicians to develop their musical talents through education and performance, and have the experience of playing with their peers, providing cultural enrichment to the regional Connecticut and New York area. Dimitrov has brought the orchestra to an extraordinary level of excellence. His elationship with these young musicians becomes part of their lives. “Music is character,” he says.
As a conductor, he is fascinating to watch. His understanding of the music and the musicians is apparent with every note that is played. His conducting is powerful and emotional, every finger involved in expressing the intention of the composer. Another parent said: “They learn to learn. They learn to work.” The music director’s response: “ I have learned so much from them.”
Currently, anticipation and excitement is in the air for the young musicians, their teachers and their families. At the final concert of the 2015 spring season, there was a literal and actual “Passing of the Baton.” The WCYO Symphony Orchestra played Rachmaninoff’s Youth Symphony, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite.
The first Swan Lake scene was conducted by Maestro Dimitrov, who then handed the baton to WCYO’s new music director Eric Mahl, who conducted Scene Two.
To find a music director capable enough to follow Petko Dimitrov was a challenge for the Western Connecticut Youth Orchestra. Mahl brings a variety of creative conducting experience to WCYO: assistant conductor of the Greenwich Village Orchestra and the Urban Playground Orchestra in New York City; music director of the Fredonia Symphony Orchestra in Fredonia, N.Y.; cover conductor for the Orchard Park Symphony in Buffalo; and assistant conductor of Orchestre 21 in Montreal.
“To teach, inspire, and establish a meaningful relationship with WCYO musicians will go well,” Mahl believes, “because they are so well-trained and professional.”
An example of this is the orchestra’s principal cellist Melanie Ambler, who performed Dvorak’s Cello Concerto magnificently. She won WCYO’s Concerto Competition, which has been held annually for the past nine seasons. The competition is open to all members of the WCYO Symphony Orchestra. The winner performs at a concert as soloist with the orchestra. Melanie started playing cello when she was eight. She will attend Brown University as a pre-medical student but plans to continue her musical education by participating in the orchestra and other ensemble groups on campus.
Gina Wilson says that though these young musicians may not make music their professional careers, they will have the joy and discipline of music enriching their lives. She also says, with pleasure and pride, that bass player Jonathan Borden is the first alumnus to be hired professionally, by the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra. For a history of their programs and to see and hear excerpts from some of the orchestra’s performances, or to find out about attending one of their concerts, visit wctyo.org.
Primary auditions for the three ensembles were in June and select auditions for each ensemble take place throughout the season, with the next in in September. More information is available at the website by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 203-894-8786.