Youth Orchestra still strong after economic crunch

Connor Guy

Last fall, just months before the economy took an unprecedented tumble, the Walla Walla Symphony (WWS), already struggling by definition as an arts organization, decided to reinstate its long-dormant youth orchestra.

Over the Walla Walla Symphony’s 102-year history, the organization has supported a youth orchestra at several points, but the program has been inconsistent, presumably for financial and logistical reasons.

Although the new youth orchestra is the brainchild of the WWS itself, several individuals played key roles in making it happen. When the idea of a youth orchestra surfaced as a real possibility for the WWS in January 2008, J.D. Smith, the symphony’s grant-writer, began looking for grant money, eventually securing a three year grant through the Sherwood Foundation for the Arts that was contingent upon a conductor.

“At this point, they called me,” said Benjamin Gish, WWS assistant-principal cellist, who ended up taking on that role. “They approached me last spring, planning to start the program in the fall, so I didn’t have very much advance notice at all, but that’s okay.”

Gish, along with Smith and WWS special projects coordinator Lacey Perry, immediately began to construct the orchestra. Part of the challenge was finding adequate numbers to fill the orchestra’s roster.

“It’s kind of tricky when you don’t know what the turnout for the auditions is going to be,” said Gish.

To fill key spots, he even reached out to students outside the Walla Walla area. For example, last year’s principal flautist came from a high school in Moscow, Idaho.

Surprisingly, although the youth orchestra has seen one of the greatest economic upheavals in recent history, funding is not a main concern: at least for the time being. So long as it meets certain benchmarks established by the Sherwood foundation, the grant will provide funding for three years regardless of economic conditions.

“This coming year, we have to do a couple of performances, report back on how we used the money last year and that sort of thing,” said WWS CEO Michael Wenberg. “It’s the kind of thing every non-profit has to do.”

But because this funding  is already in place, the youth orchestra has found itself in the somewhat unique position among arts organizations these days of not having to worry too much about money.

One advantage of this is that the WWS can offer the youth orchestra as a free program to anyone ages 10 to 20 years old who is interested. Programs in other cities, such as the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras, charge more than $800 per year in tuition. Being able to provide the program for free is a huge selling point, especially when trying to attract players who might not participate otherwise and who might not have the financial means to pay tuition.

But what about when the grant runs out? “I wouldn’t say we’re worried,” said Wenberg. “I mean, applying for grant money is naturally a really competitive process; there are so many worthy organizations all vying for this funding. As an arts organization, it’s just kind of a fact of life, unfortunately.”

On the musical front, Gish found himself faced with a whole new set of challenges once the orchestra was up and running. First and foremost was choosing appropriate literature for the vastly different levels of experience in the orchestra.

“It’s challenging because I still have to mix together about three levels of play,” said Gish. “And I’m trying to hit the middle level with the repertoire I’m picking, so that everyone’s satisfied; the advanced ones aren’t too bored, and the middle ones are happy, too, because it’s right at their level, and then I can kind of pull the rest of them along, up to a higher level than they might play normally.”

Another challenge has been maintaining interest.

“In order for a youth symphony to be something that kids are interested in, it has to sound good,” said Gish. “So part of that means that the winds and the brass have to sound good or my string players will be gone. That’s the hardest part of the equation because on those winds and brass instruments, it’s one player to a part.”

For this reason, Gish often has to bring in university level players to keep the winds and brass positions filled and sounding on par with the rest of the orchestra.

For Gish, these difficulties are only minor setbacks and are vastly overshadowed by the service that the orchestra provides to Walla Walla students.

“I really hope our community will buy into a vision of a really good youth orchestra, and that they’ll support and enjoy it,” he said.

The symphony rehearses Sundays from 4 to 9 p.m. Although the first round of auditions took place this past Sunday, Sept. 20, there is still one more chance to audition this Sunday, Sept. 27. Students or parents who are interested should contact Lacey Perry at 509-529-8020. More information can be found at  http://wwsymphony.org/aboutOrchestra_youthOrchestra.html.