Last Monday, Lech Usinowicz walked into to his Youth Symphony rehearsal 15 minutes late. The orchestra was already playing, “as they should,” Usinowicz said with a smile. He had just finished a pre-rehearsal meeting with his principal chairs at Fort Lewis College, where the San Juan Symphony Youth Orchestra rehearses every week.
“Welcome back from Thanksgiving break,” he said to the entire ensemble. “We have one week before the concert. Let’s get started.”
Usinowicz is the SJSYO general program director and conductor of the most senior ensemble. Since 2013, the whole project has come under the umbrella of our professional regional orchestra, the San Juan Symphony. Designed for young musicians in the Four Corners, SYSYO consists of a Junior Orchestra, headed by Mark Walser with Shannon Fontenot, the Youth Philharmonic, led by Molly Jensen, and the senior ensemble, the Youth Symphony, conducted by Usinowicz. Twice a year, they present a concert of demanding classical music, each with a separate repertoire. In the upcoming winter concert, one work, “Greensleeves,” will be performed “tutti,” by all three ensembles.
The Junior Orchestra musicians span in age from 9 into middle school. The youngest musicians will perform “Dragonhunter” by Richard Meyer, John Caponegro’s “Shoe Symphony” and Balmages’ “Prelude and Fugue,” which may be the most challenging.
It’s Walser’s second year leading the ensemble, working alongside Fontenot, now in her 13th year. Both teach in area elementary schools.
Jensen, who teaches in the Durango High School music department, has chosen a Russian theme for the Youth Philharmonic, “in the hope that we could channel the cold, snowy Russian tundra for our winter season,” she said. The ensemble will play three works by Russian composers, including the spirited Hopak from Moussorgsky’s “Fair at Sorochinsk.”
Usinowicz’s Youth Symphony, which includes high school- and college-age students, has taken on a daunting program.
“We’ll be playing the first movement of Sir Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings,” Usinowicz said. “Then we’ll feature Anna Newman in the first movement of Haydn’s Piano Concerto in F Major Hob. XVIII. We’ll conclude with the fiery String Symphony No. 3 by Mendelssohn. It was composed when he was just 12 years old, along with other youthful works around 1821 to 1823. The piece has all of the great influences of the classical era while staying true to the times of the ever-expressive Romantic period.”
Newman, 14, also plays cello in the Youth Symphony. She began studying piano long before adding a string instrument.
“I’ve been playing piano since I was 5 years old,” Newman said, “cello for the last four years.”
“Two years ago, when I told my piano teacher, Mika Inouye, I wanted to perform in the upcoming competition, she immediately suggested this Haydn concerto,” she said. “I’ve been working on it since March 2017. It’s so, oh man, cool. You can put so much emotion into it.”
This is the first year SJSYO will present twin concerts: 2 p.m. Sunday in the Bayfield Performing Arts Center; and 7 p.m. Monday at the Community Concert Hall in Durango.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.