video by Richard Kaplan
article by Sarah Vonsattel, violinist
I slip into a box seat at Avery Fisher Hall as the orchestra plays the first notes of the Finale from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. The auditorium is filled with the lush sound of the strings beginning a stately, heroic march. The musicians onstage lean into their instruments, eyes on the conductor. This is not the New York Philharmonic or any other professional group. I am observing a dress rehearsal of the Youth Symphony of the Greater Westchester Youth Orchestras Association for their annual concert in Avery Fisher Hall on May 4, 2014. Their conductor is MET violist Vincent Lionti. The Greater Westchester Youth Orchestras Association, or GWYOA, encompasses three orchestras comprised of students in grades four through twelve from Westchester County, NY and the surrounding communities. The Youth Symphony is the senior-most of these three, made up of students in grades ten through twelve.
The "urge to conduct"
Vincent Lionti, a violist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra since 1987, is also the conductor of the GWYOA Youth Symphony. His association with the GWYOA began when he joined the Youth Symphony as a student at the age of 12. At that time, Vincent’s father, C. Victor Lionti, was conductor of the Youth Symphony. (He remains the laureate conductor emeritus to this day). Victor had previously been the orchestra conductor at Kent State University in Ohio, as well as the violist in the faculty string quartet. “It seemed like a very glamorous life!” writes Vincent of his father’s career. “Watching your own father put on a set of tails and perform for hundreds of people makes a very strong impression on a young boy.” It was natural that Vincent also became interested in music, first taking up piano and then violin. Conducting was a natural offshoot of this curiosity. Vincent describes a memorable conducting experience that took place when he was a college student at Juilliard. “James Conlon [who frequently guest-conducts at the Metropolitan Opera] was conducting us in César Franck's d minor Symphony, and we were having trouble with a transition in the third movement. ‘It's really so simple,’ he said. ‘The beat remains the same. Look, anybody can do it. Who wants to conduct it?’ Nobody volunteered, so I stood up. He took away the score and I conducted for a couple of minutes. After that episode, who could possibly resist the urge to conduct?!”
Discovering the masterpieces for the first time – or the fiftieth
Vincent Lionti became conductor of the GWYOA Youth Symphony in 1997. Although he leads a full and busy musical life as a violist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, his role as conductor of the GWYOA Youth Symphony is one that enriches his experience as a musician. In Vincent’s words, “The rewards of conducting any youth orchestra are many and great. To observe a young musician's thrill of discovering a masterpiece for the first time, working on it and performing it well is very gratifying. I especially delight in seeing the look of accomplishment on these young musicians' faces when they walk off stage after a concert, into the wings where I like to stand and congratulate them.”
When asked how his dual roles as MET violist and GWYOA conductor complement each other, Vincent says, “Conducting young orchestras has given me valuable insight and respect for what conductors who come to the MET do and how they do it. Playing under some of the greatest conductors in the world at the MET for the last 27 years has been great education for all of us in the MET Orchestra. My MET colleagues and I have been lucky to observe up close how our conductors deal with complexities and difficulties in the score, and what to do when problems arise. Some of the Youth Symphony students study with MET Orchestra members, and I certainly aspire to get the Youth Symphony to play with the same style, commitment, accuracy, flexibility and panache that the MET Orchestra has.”
The experience of a lifetime
As anyone who was once a junior high and high school student can probably recall, this is an exhausting and hectic time of life. Students juggle a multitude of extracurricular activities along with their academic studies. All three orchestras of the GWYOA begin rehearsing the Monday after Labor Day and continue until mid-May. Rehearsals take place on Monday evenings at Westchester Community College in Valhalla, NY. One requirement to be in the GWYOA is that students must also play in their school orchestra or band, and many play sports as well. Students must manage their time carefully to accommodate these varied activities.
The orchestras perform two concerts each year at Westchester Community College and one, in the spring, at Avery Fisher Hall. The concert at Avery Fisher Hall is an exciting finale to the season. When I spoke with students backstage during a rehearsal break, they all reiterated the excitement of this spring concert. “It’s a mind-blowing experience,” says Rebeka Almasi, Principal Cellist of the Youth Symphony and a high school senior who will be attending Carnegie Mellon University in the fall to major in chemistry. “Just the feeling of being there onstage in this place where you have been in the audience…when will I get this opportunity again? This is why I’m here. That’s why I’m in this orchestra – for this moment.” Mira Vanchiswar, Principal Horn of the Youth Symphony and a high school junior, says, “You go into the hall and you think of all of the amazing people who play there, and now you’re playing there. When I was first exposed to the horn, it was at the New York Philharmonic, and they play here!”
Music as a way of life
When music is such a huge part of a student’s life, it naturally becomes an important part of his or her social life. The GWYOA introduces students to a group of peers with similar interests and goals. “I joined this orchestra – the Junior Strings - in 7th grade, and I had just moved from Albuquerque, so it was kind of a big change,” says Mary Chen, now co-concertmaster of the Youth Symphony and a high school senior who will attend Wellesley College in the fall. “It was kind of difficult for me to get used to everything, especially at school, but then on Monday nights I’d come to orchestra and would feel so much better, and it was so much easier to make friends. It helped me at school too, with the school orchestra, socially.”
Rachel Golub is one of the GWYOA’s many successful alumni. A member from 1985 to 1992, Rachel is now a freelance violinist living in New York City. In a recent conversation, she recalled the significance of her time in the GWYOA. “All of my best friends were orchestra friends. It expanded my social network beyond my own school districts. We did some tours and small trips, which started to define what I expect from musicians - excellent camaraderie, crazy escapades, and great music above all.”
Students’ experiences in the GWYOA, or any musical ensemble, also extend far beyond their musical education. Rachel Golub recalled the important life skills she gained from her experience in the GWYOA. “I recall that the elder Mr. Lionti was very strict and exacting on the podium, which is something that I’m glad for; if all my teachers had been lenient when I was a kid, I wouldn’t be so fastidious. A lot of early musical development depends on the ability to be criticized and to be critical of oneself. That’s still what drives me - the sense that I haven’t learned to do music justice yet. It gives me something to reach for every day.”
Future performers – and future audiences
Of the eight GWYOA students with whom I spoke on their rehearsal break, only two plan to attend conservatories and pursue music as a profession, but all intend to continue playing their instruments beyond high school. They hope to attend universities where they can perform in musical ensembles and to play in community bands and orchestras after college. The GWYOA is nurturing not only performers, but also music lovers and audiences. “What really makes me want to go to concerts,” says Mira Vanchiswar, “is that at the New York Philharmonic or Carnegie Hall or the MET, you can get inexpensive tickets to see really great shows with a student i.d. I went to [Strauss’] Arabella at the MET in standing room this spring, and that was really great.”
The GWYOA is cultivating the next generation of music educators as well. Violist Joanna Smulakowski (formerly Joanna Sirlin) was a member of the GWYOA from elementary school through high school. She currently teaches Suzuki strings at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls (a charter school in the south Bronx serving 350 girls in grades K-6), is an adjunct professor at Hunter College teaching string methods to education majors, and is a freelance performer in New York City. She feels that playing under Vincent Lionti in the Youth Symphony gave her a great foundation in orchestral playing. “Vincent helped prepare me for my entrance exam to Juilliard Pre-College in high school,” says Joanna. “Even while in Pre-College, I stayed in the GWYOA because of the community of the orchestra and the variety of music Mr. Lionti chose for us.” Today, Joanna’s work as an educator and performer influences hundreds of young people each year.
When asked about the role his students might play in shaping the future of classical music, Vincent becomes animated. “I try to impress upon our Youth Symphony students that they are temporary caretakers and curators of not only the great composers and orchestral music that has been written, but of all the arts. We must devote the necessary time and support by going to concerts, museums, dance, theater, opera, and libraries throughout our lives.” Vincent emphasizes that even those students who do not pursue music professionally should support the arts. “I challenge these young players to become active in their communities as they get older, regardless if they become professional musicians, to contribute in some way, join a board of trustees, become teachers or audience members. They have a responsibility to help future generations love music and all the arts the way we do now.”
As I observe the passion and energy Vincent inspires in his students, I am a firsthand witness to a tradition being passed down through generations, and of the possibilities that generosity such as his can create.