Outside the Kirkwood High School practice room, where the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra is rehearsing, it is a brutally cold January day. YO director and SLSO assistant conductor Scott Parkman admits before the rehearsal that this is a Saturday he'd just as soon stay in bed. But as soon as the orchestra completes its first run- through of a new work, he is enlivened. The work, co-commissioned by the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra with the Chicago and Vermont symphony youth orchestras, is entitled Possibly by its young composer, Micah Hayes. Despite an imposing series of eighth notes in one section of the piece, the musicians take on the task admirably.
This year marks Parkman's second full season as director of the Youth Orchestra, taking over the leadership from David Amado, who moved on to become music director of the Delaware Symphony in 2003. Parkman admits that the first season was a difficult one, with the new conductor and the musicians not completely in synch as to what was expected of each other. However, this season has been significantly different. "I have enjoyed working with this particular group more than any other youth orchestra I have worked with," Parkman says.
"There has never been a time when I have not enjoyed some part of teaching, but there is always some point where it is not so enjoyable," he explains. "It happens a lot, where you find that you keep giving, but you get less in return. There has always been return this year. Everybody keeps growing."
Emily Wozniak concurs. "This year we've settled in together more," she says. "We work more as a unit."
Wozniak, a senior at Webster Groves High School, plays principal horn for the Youth Orchestra, but it wasn't that long ago that the French horn was a mystery to her. "It's kind of a surprise," she says of how she came to her instrument. "I started in the sixth grade with no musical experience. I wanted to play flute or clarinet and they gave me the horn. I really had a hard time with it. I didn't even know how to read music."
Wozniak has gone far with the instrument that was so hugely unfamiliar to her. She will play the Strauss Horn Concerto No. 1 in the YO's March 12 concert, having won the Youth Orchestra Concerto Competition for which Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra musicians served as judges. She is in the process of preparing the work for college auditions as well, with Northwestern, Eastman, and the University of Wisconsin on her list. Wozniak selected the Strauss because there are few horn concertos to choose from‹Strauss and Mozart, that's about it‹and because, she says, "This one has the power behind it."
The young woman with the blond tresses and engaging smile presents that power when she stands before the orchestra as soloist. The concerto is designed for classical, elegant tones and colors, with a pretty dialogue that occurs between cello and horn, and some tricky rhythms. Wozniak handles it all impressively. One of her section mates calls out "Horn power!" in recognition.
The unity of the full ensemble is evident. When Parkman arrived for rehearsal, for example, the majority of the musicians were hard at work practicing the Micah Hayes score. There's no resistance to the unfamiliar composition. A solo passage for timpani is played with confidence by Josh Daly. He gets a rousing hand from his fellow musicians.
"Mendelssohn, Mendelssohn, Mendelssohn," Parkman announces. A voice from the trumpet section responds, "Yeah!"
Parkman describes the selection of repertoire for a youth orchestra as a matter of trial and error. "You never know what the orchestra will look like until you see who comes to rehearsals," he says. "You need to find out whether you're going to have a tuba or not. Mendelssohn's Fifth Symphony is really good for youth orchestra‹not too technically demanding, but not easy either. It's very well-written, very engaging from beginning to end. There are a lot of challenges in the piece, for the woodwinds and brass in terms of intonation, especially."
The musicians have embraced those challenges, which is obvious from the first measures. The sound is exquisite, full, rich; the players confident, controlled, and most importantly, aware of each other. Mendelssohn, Parkman, and the individual musicians come together to produce a loving embrace of sound.
Parkman's gestures implore the musicians to bring more feeling to the piece, which they translate into seriousness. He stops them and discusses the light, dance-like effect of the melody. "Sing it," he says. The musicians laugh shyly, then find the gentle sway of the rhythm with their voices.
They resume the symphony, and Parkman looks as though he is in heaven. "Allegro vivace," he calls, "let the floodgates open."
The cold winds outside are forgotten with the sweet melodies of Mendelssohn. The orchestra takes a break, and the serious musicians magically transform to a bunch of excited, silly, awkward, jabbering teenagers.
Outside in the hallway, Parkman beams, "That is such a happy piece."
Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.