Anyone who cares about the future of music and the community should sit up and take notice, as 150 area youth will come together on the stage of Patriots Theater at the Trenton War Memorial for Trenton’s very first Youth Orchestra Festival.
Three of the region’s top independently operated youth orchestras — the Bravura Youth Orchestra, Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra, and Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey — will rotate in performance on Saturday, January 26, starting at 2 p.m.
The orchestras will be represented by musicians from their organizations’ highest divisions, featuring some of the most talented students from throughout central New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Each ensemble will consist of about 50 performers playing professional-grade orchestral compositions.
“Anyone who wants to see what young student musicians are capable of, with years of dedication, will be amazed,” says James Bushong, founder and director of the Patriots Arts Coalition. “Everyone attending will hear an afternoon of delightful music made possible by the dedication of the kids, conductors, program directors, and administrative staff of these youth orchestras.”
He points out that events like these can have a deeper significance than any displays of skill or artistic expressions of the moment, to have a lasting impact, building the courage, confidence, and character of the students performing. And the students themselves can serve as powerful role models for their peers.
“These programs help serious student musicians enhance their musical skills outside of school and provide opportunities to participate in an orchestra for kids who don’t have the opportunity — for example, those in schools that do not offer orchestra programs and home-schooled children. Attending the event shows support for these wonderful programs so that they can continue and thrive.”
While the festival serves as a symbol of unity in the love of music, it is also a powerful metaphor for revivification, as these talented young people take to the stage of an historic theater that once hosted musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Bruce Springsteen, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
“Imagine how awesome an experience it will be for these students to perform for an audience of 700 or more on the grand stage of Patriots Theater,” Bushong says. “It should be an unforgettable experience.”
The event is being hosted by the Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey. Bushong struck upon the idea for the concert last January, while attending a performance by the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra, in which his 14-year-old son plays the violin.
“As a parent, I was excited that my son would be performing in a theater that seats about 2,000 people,” he says. “When we pulled up to the War Memorial, we could not believe our eyes. The exterior is so stately. Then to walk inside the actual theater, with its exquisite decor, and experience the wonderful nostalgia of a bygone era, when attention to detail and ambiance were a huge part of the entertainment experience, we were totally blown away. It was such a rare and powerful feeling that I wanted other children and parents to have the same opportunity.”
Working in collaboration with Gloria Teti, president of the board of the Capital Philharmonic, and Daniel Spalding, the philharmonic’s music director, Bushong spearheaded a Youth Orchestra Festival. Representatives of the participating organizations — Larisa Epps and John Enz of the Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey, Chiu-Tze Lin of Bravura Youth Orchestra, and Susan Meuse of Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra — all participated in the planning.
As an important component of the venture, Bushong is encouraging everyone to consider sponsoring an underprivileged child through the Festival’s “Music and a Meal” program.
“Many children living in difficult circumstances in and around Trenton do not get to participate in the performing arts, or even have the opportunity to watch them,” he says. “Helping children in need attend this festival, so that they can see other children making amazing music on stage, is sure to open up their young minds to what is possible.”
Disadvantaged kids in and around Trenton will be served lunch prior to the concert. In addition, there will be representatives on-hand to share opportunities to get kids involved in music.
“I just wanted to give them the opportunity to experience watching these other kids perform on stage so that they feel included in the community and make sure that none of them feel that orchestral music is not for them,” Bushong says. “If we get them a nice meal at the theater, then they’ll have a really positive experience of community inclusion, that they were invited, that they were included in this event, and that they’ll have a good day.”
Bushong grew up in Lancaster County and for many years lived in the Philadelphia suburbs. After three years in Connecticut, he moved with his family to Skillman. The experience of hearing his son perform at Patriots Theater also motivated him to found the Patriots Arts Coalition, a nonprofit organization designed to bring more events to the venue (six per year), as well as to offer opportunities for children and adults living in difficult circumstances to attend and be inspired. The plan encompasses follow-up initiatives to help children themselves become involved.
The coalition’s inaugural effort was the Westminster collaborative concert, “Pioneer Songs,” that was presented at the War Memorial in November.
“It’s just such a grand place, and I feel it can be an epicenter of community, bringing people from outside Trenton to the city and also including people inside the city, to help them to be inspired by the performing arts,” Bushong says.
Bushong himself is not a musician. In fact, his background is in chemical engineering. “A few years ago I wanted to do things that were more ‘human’ related instead of always dealing with process, equipment, and things like that,” he says. “I just had a strong desire to work with people. I joined a Rotary club, and it got me into the mindset of service above self. Then I started taking marketing classes. Promoting the performing arts has a powerful civic component, and that’s what matters to me.”
Having grown up in a poor family but now living in a wealthy school district, he says he is motivated in part by the fact that as child he didn’t have some of the opportunities he is now trying to provide for others. “I don’t want to make it that extreme, but it was difficult enough that I have empathy for what it’s like to not feel included.”
“I love the performing arts. I’m very inspired by all kinds of music. The love of music is sort of a universal, positive thing. I try to use the performing arts as a foundation for trying to do civic good. If a child picks up an instrument and learns it, there’s a lot of research that shows that it helps them stay focused and stay in school.”
The “Music and a Meal” program was organized by the Patriot Arts Coalition, Millhill Child & Family Development, HomeFront, The Boys & Girls Club of Mercer County, UIH Family Partners, and Every Child Valued. Catering for “Music and a Meal” will be provided by 1911 Smokehouse BBQ and the Big Easy. The festival itself is underwritten in part by NJM Insurance Group.
“Patriots Theater at the War Memorial needs wonderful community events like this,” says Bushong. “A well-attended inaugural festival will set the stage for this to become an annual thing. And it is a perfect place for it, with plenty of room to handle large groups like these three youth ensembles coming together to celebrate unity and joy of music with the audience.”
Youth Orchestra Festival, Patriots Theater, Trenton War Memorial. Saturday, January 26, 2 p.m. www.yofest.org.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, January 20, six days in advance of the festival, the Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey will present two separate programs at the College of New Jersey’s Kendall Hall. The afternoon program, which will take place at 2:30 p.m., will include performances by its Saxophone Choir and Symphonic Orchestra. The evening program, at 7:30 p.m., will feature the String Preparatory Orchestra, Wind Symphony, and Pro Arte Orchestra.
David Kim will be guest soloist in the afternoon concert, performing Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor. Kim has served as concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1999. This will be his third appearance with YOCJ. He performed the Glazunov Concerto with the orchestra in 2010 and the Tchaikovsky concerto in 2016. Long active in the cultivation and encouragement of young performers, he also serves on the advisory board of the San Jose Youth Symphony.
Closer to home, he has performed with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra and the Delaware County Youth Orchestra. His association with YOCJ has led to appearances here by other Philadelphia Orchestra musicians. In turn, the students travel to Philadelphia to attend a Philadelphia Orchestra concert.
On Tuesday, March 12, Kim will visit West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North to conduct an interactive master class. The master class is free and open to the public.
“We find that he has a phenomenal connection to students,” YOCJ artistic director John Enz says of Kim. “When he plays with us, of course, he has an artistic input, and how he interacts with the orchestra is really wonderful. The students respond in a most efficient and glorious way. He has a style that is very conducive to gathering the attention and the motivation of the student musicians.”
Enz will conduct the YOCJ Symphonic Orchestra for Kim’s appearance. He will also lead the ensemble in Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, “Little Russian.”
Also included in the afternoon concert will be the world premiere, made possible by a consortium of YOCJ supporters, of a new work by New York City-based composer David Noon, “Gran Partita.” The YOCJ Saxophone Choir will be led by Jordan Smith.
The evening concert will include performances by the YOCJ Wind Symphony, directed by Brian Woodward. Phillip Pugh will lead the String Preparatory Orchestra. The evening will culminate in the combined forces, billed as the Pro Arte Orchestra, performing 19th-century French composer Ferdinand Herold’s “Zampa Overture” and Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty Waltz.”
As has been the case in the past, a single ticket purchase will allow admission to both the afternoon and evening concerts.
YOCJ was founded by Portia Sonnenfeld in 1978 as a preparatory orchestra for the Mercer County Symphony Orchestra (now the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra). More than 200 elementary through high school students make up the orchestra and its performance groups, including two levels for strings, advanced symphonic orchestra, and small ensembles for brass, percussion, and woodwinds. Auditions for new students are held in January, June, and September. The next auditions will take place on Tuesday, January 29.
Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey, Kendall Hall, College of New Jersey, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing. Sunday, January 20, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. www.tcnj.edu/boxoffice.