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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the June 2, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

At 25, This Symphony’s More Youthful Than Ever

Princeton’s Rita Asch is impossible to categorize. Her instrument is the piano. She tends to work in musical theater, and her favorite creative strategy is improvisation. A catalyst for various performing groups, she custom fits projects to each group’s participants.

Once again Asch is collaborating with conductor Barbara Barstow, artistic director of the New Jersey Youth Symphony (NJYS) and one of its team of five conductors. Asch and Barstow have a long history of working together. The two are co-founders of the Belle Mead Friends of Music. In addition, Asch has tailored musical works for Barstow’s ensembles. Barstow is a founder of both NJYS and the Community Orchestra at Westminster Choir College of Rider University.

The pair’s newest collaboration surfaces when the New Jersey Youth Symphony celebrates its 25th anniversary at New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Prudential Hall in Newark on Sunday, June 6, at 4 p.m. The Youth Symphony, a complex of performing groups, has commissioned six New Jersey composers to write music for its component ensembles. Asch’s piece, “Celebration in Three,” is performed in the company of compositions by George Walker, David Sampson, Raymond Wojcik, Donald Behm, and David Austin. Each ensemble performs one commissioned piece and an already-existing composition. Asch’s group, the “Sinfonia,” a string orchestra whose players come from grades five through eight, plays her “Celebration in Three” and a Jan Sibelius work.

Those new to the New Jersey Youth Symphony (NJYS) are likely to be startled by its magnitude. The enterprise consists of three full orchestras, three string orchestras, two flute choirs, and a summer music camp. An exception among fiscally fragile performing arts entities, NJYS is sound financially, Barstow says in a telephone conversation from the organization’s Murray Hill office. An endowment fund buttresses its annual budget of $500,000. “We’re always opening the door to new contributors. People want to jump on the band wagon. The board is motivated. The parents are motivated. We’ve been blessed with parent-financial advisors who kept us from losing money when the market went down.”

Founded in 1979 with a single string orchestra of 65 instrumentalists, NJYS now offers musical training to more than 400 participants ranging in age from 8 to 18. The young musicians come from 78 communities in 10 counties.

“When I was commissioned to write for the 25th anniversary gala, I wanted to compose a piece that would be joyful and fun. That’s why the word ‘celebration’ is in the title,” says Asch in a telephone interview from her Princeton home. “I decided to write a suite in three movements. That’s where the ‘three’ comes from. The first movement is called ‘Catch Me if You Can.’ It’s an orchestral relay race. The instruments pass ideas back and forth until the race is won. The double bass has the last word. In the second movement, ‘Shall We Dance?’ the harp joins in for a more relaxed waltz. The third movement, ‘Watch Your Step’ is a tribute to ragtime. It has syncopated rhythms and constant chromatic half steps. I love to play ragtime piano and I wanted to give young string players a chance to enjoy the syncopated rhythms that make ragtime a delight.

“There’s no narrative; the music will speak for itself,” says Asch, for whom language is normally integral to her compositions. Indeed, even in this piece she can’t resist playing with words. Punsters may have noted the multiple meanings of “Celebration in Three’s” third movement, “Watch Your Step.” They can explain to non-punsters that besides the usual sense of “be careful,” the title alludes to dance steps, and refers to musical notes close to one another in pitch.

“I love the combination of words and music,” Asch says. “I never tire of thinking about it. When I’m reading, musical ideas come to me, and I think about how to incorporate the written word with sound. One mustn’t overpower the other. I don’t examine my creative process. It just happens. But almost always it’s the words that propel it.”

Born in 1938 to an architect father and a mother trained as a mathematics teacher, Rita grew up in the Bronx. Her brother, Jerrold, four years her senior, an engineer, lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. “My parents loved music, but they weren’t musicians,” she says. “They always encouraged me.”

A headstart on piano at age six prepared her for New York City’s specialized High School of Music and Art. Entering Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory as a composition major, Asch found the school too confining for her taste. She switched to Oberlin College to satisfy her hunger for liberal arts, and graduated as a music major. Her desire to compose stayed with her.

Married in 1959 to Peter Asch, a graduate student at Princeton, Asch moved to New Jersey and became an accompanist for Princeton Ballet classes. “I thought I wanted to compose music for dance,” she says. A professor of economics at Rutgers, Peter died in 1990. Asch has two sons. Eric, 44, a market researcher, is based in Los Angeles. David, 42, a computer program designer in Silver Spring, Maryland.

For 12 years Asch’s partner has been Frank Magalhaes, a retired engineer, and a serious art photographer. Magalhaes’ striking images of Turkey, captured on a trip last year with Asch, emphasize the common elements America and Turkey share, despite cultural differences.

Like Magalhaes, Asch has pursued connections that are not necessarily obvious on the surface. A trained music therapist, she realized that learning to play piano was possible for those with physical or emotional handicaps. While working in a methadone-maintenance program in Trenton in the 1970s, she developed the notion of teaching piano privately to people likely to have difficulty with traditional teachers.

For a clientele with little or no experience of live piano performance, Asch devised individualized lessons. Cerebral palsy and addiction were no hindrance for her. She taught dyslexics by rote or by using charts instead of standard notation. She allowed students to learn the pieces that mattered to them. Always, she removed the pressure from piano study. “For people with handicaps and those without, music builds self-esteem,” says Asch, who maintains a piano studio.

From 1978 to 2001 Asch worked in music theater programs that guided children in developing and performing musical theater. Her lateral move came about by chance. Asch was composing for cabaret singer Lee Dratfield and performing with her as a pianist. Having devised a script for Dratfield based on E. B. White’s classic “Charlotte’s Web,” she discovered that she had written “too many songs for one person to sing,” as she puts it.

Asch took her ideas about “Charlotte’s Web” to Pamela Hoffman, head of Creative Theater, a Princeton program for children, and eventually joined her. When Creative Theater closed because of financial problems, Hoffman and Asch moved to Westminster Choir College.

Meeting once a week beginning in September, participants improvised on a subject chosen by Hoffman and Asch. By May they were ready with a polished performance. “Pam was a master in getting kids to feel free enough,” Asch says. “The kids improvised, and I took notes. They and I wrote a script. It was a fascinating process. I never ceased to be amazed at what the kids would come up with.”

Among the productions were shows based on O’Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief;” Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “King Lear;” and Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” The original pieces included “Mythion Impossible,” based on Greek myths; “The Misguided Light,” a soap opera, and “Hamlete, Princess of Denmark.” Says Asch, “the kids cooked up the names.”

“We adapted each piece to the class. If there were 15 kids in the class and five people in the story, we created a whole town. We added characters liberally.” Asch’s collaboration with Barstow paralleled her work with Hoffman, which came to an end three years ago.

The Barstow-Asch collaboration has a good prognosis beyond the 25th anniversary concert. The soundness of the New Jersey Youth Symphony in a time of financial famine for the arts, combined with Asch’s irrepressible inventiveness, promise to result in many happy returns.

New Jersey Youth Symphony, 25th Anniversary, NJ Performing Arts Center, Prudential Hall, Newark. 888-466-5722. $20

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