Music-ClassicalPlay-Along with the VSO
Virginia Symphony Orchestra
Jan. 27, 3 PM
Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, 757-892-6366, 757-385-2787

Side by Side by Something Special

Professional and student orchestras pair for classic concert

By Montague Gammon III

The annual Side-by-Side concert that pairs the professionals of the Virginia Symphony with the student musicians of the Bay Youth Symphony Orchestra adds a new component this year, a third, very large bunch of (amateur) musicians: the audience.
Ben Rous, Associate Conductor of the Virginia Symphony, who will occupy the podium for most of the concert, says that the audience will “get to be a proper audience for about two-thirds of the concert.”
His plans for that other 33.3 % involve carefully unspecified (closely guarded) plans for “stuff” the people out in the Sandler Center seats will do to contribute to the performance.
This January 27 concert is part of the VSO’s Peanut Butter and Jam: Family Classics concert series, aimed at all ages. PB&J events always include family themed activities in the lobby beginning an hour before the concert. The series emphasizes orchestral and classical music in ways that are accessible, and lots of fun, for young listeners.
VSO Assistant Concert Master Amanda Armstrong says the January concert will be “incredibly exuberant – enthusiastic!”
The Virginia Symphony is, of course, the premiere classical music group in the state.
Bay Youth Orchestras of Virginia is made up of 4 separate orchestras of increasing musical expertise (and more or less increasing age): Junior String, String, Concert and Symphony Orchestras.
As choristers, percussionists, and providers of special effects, the audience will get an experience that is literally “hands-on,” and very much under conductor Rous’ direction.
“In general terms,” he says, “I will rehearse them if they are an orchestra. I will cue them. I will conduct them. They will have to listen to the orchestra and match the beat, match the rhythm. So they will become musicians even if they are aren’t, and if they are musical I hope to hone their skills.”
“It’s going to get loud and they will be part of the madness!” Rous promises.
That volume – there will be roughly twice as many people on stage as there are in the usual VSO concert – is a prime reason that the familiar Mars, Bringer of War, from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, has a place in the program. Rous terms it “the perfect piece” for an event involving so many players. He promises “a tremendous amount of sound” that will “really blow the roof off.”
BYOV music director Helen Martell takes the baton for another lively piece, the Second Movement of Symphony No. 5, by Dmitri Shostakovich, which Rous says is “fantastic for the big ensemble,” an example of the “brutal foot stomping sound that Shostakovich is so good at.”
Waltzes by Johann Strauss, Jr., excerpted from On the Beautiful Blue Danube and Voices of Spring, provide “a chance for the audience to participate in making waltz rhythm …as if they were dancing
themselves,” as well, one suspects, as being a clear contrast to the roof removing, foot stomping stuff, and to big choral and even bigger artillery effects later on.
The choral element comes from Beethoven’s 9th, “one of the most important melodies ever composed.” In the Side-by-Side (by audience) rendition, Rous promises that it will be “a little bit zingy,” and
then corrects himself: “Awfully zingy!”
The 1812 Overture, Tchaikovsky’s grand salute to Russia’s repulse of Napoleon’s invasion, provides – with audience assistance again – a concert finale with its famously climactic cannon fire, chimes and
brass instruments.
Rous and VSO Assistant Concert Master Amanda Armstrong speak of the rare opportunity that the regular Bay Youth/ VSO, student/professional side-by-sides offer both the young players and their audiences.
Rous started violin lessons at the age of 7, and in his years before entering Harvard, playing in three different youth orchestras, he remembers only three side-by-side events, none of which was “particularly great.”
Armstrong, who began violin lessons at “9 or 10″, never once got to play in a side-by-side even though her junior orchestra, then called The Northern Virginia Youth Symphony, was nationally prominent and
geographically close to the cultural resources of the DC region.
By contrast, these VSO/BYOV joint concerts have been going on for at least the 16 years that Armstrong has been in the orchestra.
She terms the side-by-side “apprenticeship in action.”
Armstrong brings multiple perspectives to the Side-by-Side. She’s Executive Director of Bay Youth, Assistant Concert Master of Virginia Symphony, mom of 12 and 8 year old Bay Youth musicians, (Byron, Concert Orchestra; Blake, Junior Strings) and wife of VSO concert master Vaughan Armstrong.
She says that young musicians, or even pre-musicians, in the audience see young people onstage and react “like a toddler looking at an older child running, saying “I can do that someday!’.”
Everyone will “see on the faces of the [students] who are playing a sort of rapt attention – wide open – trying to absorb as much as they can absorb” from the professionals, she says.
That is where the instructional and apprenticeship elements of side-by-side concerts join the audience experience, when the young musicians’ clear devotion to their nascent artistry carries with their music out into the auditorium, and makes the fun meaningful to all.