The RPYO Plays On!

written by Irene Narotsky, RPYO Manager

The Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (RPYO) was expecting to use “a year like no other” as a celebratory 2020 tagline, but the world commandeered that mantra. Looks like it is back to the drawing table for a new slogan!

2020 was the 50th anniversary of the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. This performance and educational orchestra, a part of the RPO’s Education Department, has drawn advanced-level secondary school students from 5 counties without interruption for fifty years. Although Covid-19 impacted the anniversary plans, it could not stop the RPYO from playing!

The 20-21 RPYO season began slightly later than normal using new tools such as puppy pads, KN95 masks, bell covers, social distancing, hand sanitizer, and room air exchange rates. After much consideration, counsel, and guidance from medical, educational, and governmental authorities, RPYO opened its season by renting out an area hotel’s grand ballroom. Our mission was unchanged from the prior 50 years – to provide youth with exceptional opportunities for playing orchestral music altogether. The last word may be a stretch but only slightly. Our almost 90-person orchestra was divided into three subgroups to meet the “mass gathering” restrictions. Each grouping was limited to playing for only one hour together. No student shared music stands, and the rehearsal hall was left empty for a full hour between playing groups to ensure a thorough air cleaning. As the season evolved and the “mass gathering” restriction grew smaller, the playing groups were made even smaller. Nonetheless, groups of students, sitting 6 or 12 feet apart (depending on the instruments), WERE playing music together.

RPYO Students performing.

This unusual season’s fundamental goal was that RPYO would provide equal playing opportunities for each student regardless of instrument. Recognizing that there may be more concern with Covid transmission via the wind and brass instruments, those students were placed 12 feet apart and given additional protective tools. That brings us back to puppy pads. These were used by the brass students to catch their instrument’s spit collection.

The repertoire was chosen to give plenty of opportunities for all instruments: Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s Marche slave (Slavonic March), Giuseppe Verdi’s La forza del destino (The Power of Fate), Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No. 4, Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, mvt. 1, Franz von Suppé’s Overture to Leichte Kavallerie (Light Cavalry), and Richard Wagner’s Overture to Rienzi.

What we saw were smiles behind those masks and a spirit of true gratitude from students. This writer’s weeks were highlighted by the sentiments of thankfulness from students as they entered the gargantuan ballroom-turned-rehearsal-hall.

As the community’s virus rate further escalated, RPYO pivoted to a fully online model by creating the “RPO-RPYO Network” series. Our students dialogued via Zoom sessions with RPO string, woodwinds, brass, percussion musicians, and a masterclass with Concertmaster Juliana Athayde. We also learned the roles of the RPO staff, including a conversation with CEO Curt Long. Students also had the pleasure to speak with the newly announced RPO Music Director-Designate, Andreas Delfs. These sessions were genuinely unprecedented for the level of connection they fostered between the RPYO and RPO and the impactful wisdom imparted upon our students.

RPYO Students, along with RPYO Music Director James Mick, in conversation with Music Director-Designate Andreas Delfs

At this writing, RPYO is ready to restart in-person rehearsals now that the yellow and orange zone restrictions have been lifted. We are poised and anxious to perform our music and not just rehearse it. We’re working creatively to do just that while keeping health and safety paramount.

But what about our 50th-anniversary celebration? That celebration will be held in a future year. This year we are celebrating that we are just playing together.

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