The talented teens of the Santa Cruz County Youth Symphony express themselves in orchestral music
“There’s a storm picking up,” Nathaniel Berman says from a podium at the front of the classroom. Suddenly a sea of violin bows start bobbing in the air and the bottom floor of Georgiana Bruce Kirby Preparatory School fills with the thundering sound of 33 instruments.
Using maritime analogies, Berman, a UCSC alumnus with a master’s degree in conducting, leads the Santa Cruz County Youth Symphony through Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture,” one of three orchestral pieces that the Youth Symphony will perform on Nov. 6 at the UCSC Music Center Recital Hall.
As the group transitions to “Petite Suite” by Claude Debussy, Berman tells his students to imagine they’re no longer on the high seas, but floating down a river at night. As a result, the tempo changes from a loud roar akin to bees swarming, to an ethereal soundscape fit for the gates of heaven.
“I think people have a creative intuition that can inspire you more than the technical aspect of music,” Berman explains of his musical methodology. “Instead of saying that we’re going from quiet to loud, you could say we’re on a ship in the mist, then by bar 10 the waves are getting louder and hitting the ship. You’re trying to get at the emotion and the experience—and it makes them play better.”
It’s the Youth Symphony members themselves, however, who execute every note with flawless precision. If you closed your eyes, you’d never guess that the nearly three dozen musicians are between the ages of 12 and 19.
“It’s really exciting,” flautist Emily Szasz says of the Nov. 6 performance. “It’s a fun thing to do after practicing for many months.” The 16-year-old student at Santa Cruz High School has been a member of the Youth Symphony for three years. While Szasz plays in the Santa Cruz High School band and does chamber music on the side, her first love is the symphony.
“It’s an opportunity to play with the most talented young musicians in the area,” Szasz explains. “It’s also an opportunity to play classical music, which is not something that’s too common these days.”
With budget cuts hacking away at local music programs, Szasz and the other Youth Symphony members have found solace in the organization, which encourages young people to look beyond the sheet music for inspiration.
“School orchestras are based more on playing music than expression,” explains Jason Ismail, a 15-year-old oboe player from Pacific Collegiate School. “[The Youth Symphony’s] a more professional place to play.”
It’s for that same reason that Ismail’s fellow Youth Symphony member and classmate Sahil Chopra commutes from Gilroy to participate. “At school, music is more of a class,” says the double bass player. “People who want to be here, come—and it’s way more fun.”
Pacific Collegiate has an orchestra and Chopra has his own after-school band, but the Youth Symphony affords him and his friends the freedom to dive into classical music in an interpretive way, by adding dimensions. “If you look at music and think of imagery—it’s all about how you shape it,” he explains.
For Berman—who also directs the UCSC Concert Choir—the chance to work with teenagers is a rewarding challenge. And helping them to channel their wild energy into music is half the fun. He compares the experience of teaching classical music to showing a child how to read a simple book, and then handing them a beautiful novel. “Musicians can dive in with all of their skills,” he explains. “It stretches players in every aspect of technical musicianship.”
To prepare the Youth Symphony members for their upcoming concert, he instructs: “I dare you to be an artist, not just sitting at Youth Symphony. Think about the atmosphere you want to create. Let yourself be transparent and think about the image you want to create with your instrument.”
The Santa Cruz County Youth Symphony performs at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6 at UCSC’s Music Center Recital Hall, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10/adults, $8/seniors, $5/students, and can be purchased online at sccys.org, or at the door. For a list of upcoming performances, visit sccys.org.