For the past two years, Edmonton Youth Orchestra musicians have gone to extraordinary lengths rehearsing online until the day they could return to live performances. With 142 musicians divided between the Intermediate and Senior orchestras, at-home rehearsals posed unprecedented logistical challenges.
“For one thing, we had to deal with the many technical issues of Zoom. The music would cut in and out. It was terrible,” said EYO conductor-composer Michael Massey. The St. Albert musician did not disguise how the pandemic’s impact created a degree of intolerable misery and inactivity for the orchestra.
As restrictions have relaxed, the orchestra will perform its first and last live concert of the season on Sunday, May 1, at the Francis Winspear Centre for Music.
“The kids want it. They’ve been starving for participation and performance opportunities. They are quite eager to play,” Massey said.
Held every year to commemorate one of Edmonton’s most beloved music teachers, the prestigious Thelma Johannes O’Neill Memorial Concert will also feature string and voice Concerto Competition winners: soloists Elina Yuma, Sointu Aalto, and Glynnis McCrostie.
Thelma O’Neill was a humble, unmarried Edmonton teacher whose primary focus was imbuing students with a passion for music. She attended every EYO concert, and upon her death, she willed $120,000 to the youth orchestra.
“I was flabbergasted. That was an amount of money you could do something with. She had stipulated a concert in her name with the scholarship winners. That was the least we could do,” Massey explained.
This season is also the 50th anniversary of EYO’s first European tour to Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1972 under the baton of then conductor Ted Kardash.
“Ted lives in San Diego now, but he’ll be attending the concert for a reunion.”
The 60-member Intermediate Orchestra will perform the Adagio-Allegro portion of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 and Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 6 with violin soloist Yuma.
“I love Haydn’s symphony. It’s ideal for young players. It has all of Haydn’s elements but in a simpler way of doing things. Paganini’s, instead, is a showpiece. It’s a very difficult violin piece, but Elina plays it amazingly well. The piece is deceiving for the orchestra because they have to accompany in a subtle way.”
The 82-member Senior Orchestra with accompanying cellist Aalto will start their set with Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski's contemporary composition Concerto for Cello and Orchestra.
“It’s horrendously difficult. A lot of times, I just give entry cues. It’s very free and at times feels improvised. It’s not music. It’s sounds and gestures. It’s not something we’ve done before. I’m happy [Aalto] won the competition. It’s something to behold, what she’s done.”
McCrostie will share her light, lyrical soprano voice with two arias from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, and the Senior Orchestra will finish the concert with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op.95 from The New World.
“The orchestra first performed Dvorak on the tour in 1972. I felt, since we are having a reunion, we should play some piece from Dvorak. What's interesting was he was invited to teach in the United States, and he wrote a bunch of symphonies in the 1890s. This one is beautiful, lyrical, and a complete contrast to the cello concerto.”
While the meat of the concert focuses on classical music, Massey is excited about diverging from traditional repertoire and including Lutoslawski's contemporary work, first performed in 1970.
“It will be a lovely occasion. We will be wearing masks except for wind players, and we’ll push ahead and do our best.”