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Meet The SSYO

The halls at Eagle Hill Middle School in Manlius are mostly quiet on Sunday afternoons. But for a few hours each week, a walk toward the auditorium yields the sweetly unexpected: swelling strings, pulsing horns, snapping snare drums. 

The sounds are polished and precise, but the performers are not professionals—at least not yet. This is a typical rehearsal for the Syracuse Symphony Youth Orchestra (SSYO). The group, founded in 1970, is comprised of student orchestral musicians from nearly 30 local secondary and home schools. And they all take their playing very seriously.

Bassoonist Brianna Suslovic

“I’m inspired by the other players,” says Brianna Suslovic, a bassoonist and freshman at Jamesville-DeWitt High School. “Each person in the SSYO has a love for the instrument they play.”

Says violinist Marika Klosowski, a junior at Skaneateles High School: “The SSYO has given me more of a feel of what it would be like in a professional orchestra. … It has helped me solidify that I do want music to be a part of my adult life.”

Guest conductor James Tapia

Like the Real Thing

While many local school districts have strong music programs, for some it’s not enough. With the SSYO, student performers build their technique with demanding repertories and—on occasion—rub elbows with their professional counterparts in the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. From the audition process to the rehearsals to the performances, much is expected of the young musicians. But for those who plan to pursue music as a career, the SSYO can be an unparalleled opportunity.

“So many musicians I have worked with in various situations, from all across the country, have told me that organizations like this made a huge difference in their development,” says James Tapia, director of orchestral activities at Syracuse University and a guest conductor for the SSYO this year. “For me, it’s about making it a worthwhile, eye-opening experience for the students—and making it fun.”

One of the things Tapia loves most about working with the SSYO is the musicians’ willingness to learn. “Groups like this, with this level of talent, are so malleable. There’s no baggage.”

The SSYO repertoire is hardly child’s play. For its winter concert in January, the SSYO performed Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, op. 30, “Romantic”—a piece common to the orchestral repertoire that features tempo and dynamic shifts that challenged the student musicians.

Tapia, who lives in Syracuse with his wife and two young sons, says the music chosen tests the performers’ skills, and, often, broadens the audience’s musical experience. The SSYO conductor makes selections with input from Syracuse Symphony’s music director, Daniel Hege, and Jocelyn Rauch, manager of the SSYO.

“When I think about the music, I think about the technical abilities,” Tapia says. “I make suggestions based on the strengths and weaknesses of the ensemble.”

Brenna Ardner of Liverpool, a home-schooled senior and flutist who was accepted into the SSYO last fall, was daunted at the caliber of the material at first. “The music, for me, was challenging and the conductors expected us to play at a professional level,” she says. “I was confident in my technique, but from the very first day, the competitive environment really stood out for me.”

The SSYO performs four concerts—including a Side-By-Side Concert with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra—each year at the Mulroy Civic Center in Syracuse. The attire is formal and the interaction between the musicians and the conductor is as mutually respectful as in any professional classical music setting.

“The concert performance is a unique experience,” Klosowski says. “I think that’s the reward for us—being able to share what we have been doing with our families and the community. When you think of the rehearsal schedule—two and a half hours every Sunday, and all the other things we do away from the orchestra—it’s exciting when it all comes together.”

Getting Into 
the Music

While the orchestra has some members who come from families with musical backgrounds, others flourish in decidedly non-musical families.
Dan Brown
Violist Dan Brown, a junior at Fayetteville-Manlius High School, didn’t listen to much classical music growing up, just “country music on the radio or Raffi or whatever else my mom turned on that day.”  Brown’s choice of instrument came by process of elimination in fourth grade; the violin was—he says—“so obvious,” and the bass was bigger than he was. “So that just left this thing called the viola, which I sort of liked, so I gave it a try,” Brown recalls. “I liked it so I stuck with it and practiced hard, which led to where I am now.”

The school’s string teacher, Muriel Bodley (who also conducts the Syracuse Symphony Youth String Orchestra), encouraged his interest and by the end of that year, Brown set his sights on being “the best violist Fayetteville-Manlius had ever seen.”

Today, he’d have to rank among the most versatile and busiest as well. Brown plays in and manages the Limestone Quartet, a group of F-M juniors who perform at weddings, banquets and other local functions. He’s in several school-based groups, including choirs.

For Ardner, the SSYO has provided an ensemble experience that she could not duplicate as a home-schooled musician. Although she first picked up a flute at age 5, and has played with the Syracuse University-based Allegro Youth Wind Ensemble for four years, she only “got serious” about playing last year.

“I used to be in a home school band—there were about 10 kids and we would meet once a week for about an hour,” Ardner, a Liverpool resident, says. “This group is the cream of the crop and that spurs me on, makes me want to do better.”

Now a senior, Ardner plans to begin a flute performance degree at Onondaga Community College next fall.
For cellist Lucas Button, a sophomore at Canastota High School, music is in the family genes. His mother, Ilze Brink-Button, is a local performer and music educator. His father, Steve Button, is a trombonist and band director. “Since both my parents play orchestral music, I’ve been exposed to it my whole life,” he says.
Although he has played cello since he was 7 years old, Button wanted to explore other career options. “I really didn’t get bit by the musical bug until last summer,” he says, when he attended a four-week program at the New York State Summer School of the Arts in Saratoga.
David Raschella, a senior at C.W. Baker High School in Baldwinsville, is no stranger to the SSYO organization. His father, John, plays trumpet with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, and he has been playing French horn with the SSYO for his entire high school career.
Since his mother is a vocal teacher for the Baldwinsville school district, and his father gave private horn lessons in the family home, Raschella has always been around music. Although he’s been playing French horn for most of his childhood, he says he always expected to find his true passion outside of music.
“I really never liked horn until I got into high school,” Raschella says with a laugh. “I always said I wasn’t going into music.”
Today, Raschella is active in his school bands and participates in All-County competitions. And when he’s not playing French horn, he’s singing and playing guitar with his band, The Influence, a punk/power pop group that gigs locally.
Perhaps few members of the SSYO have been quite as steadfast in their focus as violinist Cecelia Lee. The junior from Fayetteville-Manlius High School had her instrument handed to her when she was 5 years old. “One day, it just came in the mail.”
Although she began playing because her mother wanted her to, Lee gradually developed her own reasons for performing. “Sometime in eighth or ninth grade, I started understanding the music. I saw more depth in it, and I began to like playing a lot more.”
Lee was concertmaster for the SSYO’s winter performance, and she plays in the Limestone Quartet with Dan Brown. The two also work as music librarians for the orchestra.

Moms and Dads 
on Board

Violinist Cecelia LeeA seat in the SSYO means weekly rehearsals in Manlius and hours of practice at home. Orchestra members’ participation requires unusual commitment, financial and emotional, from their parents.  
 “My parents always fully supported everything I wanted,” Brown says. “I think they caught on fast that I really liked viola and they saw how hard I was working for a kid in middle school, so that convinced them to let me pursue it.”
Button acknowledges that to afford things like private lessons and music camps, parents have to sacrifice. “I don’t know where I’d be without what they have done for me,” he says. “The financial investment can be pretty big.”
As happy as Button’s parents are that he has a strong interest in music, mom Ilze Brink-Button says there was never an effort to influence Lucas’ decisions about his own future. “As professional musicians ourselves, we are intimately aware of the difficulty of a musician’s life—financially and in other ways. Such a competitive and unsure way of life is not something we would want to push on our child.”

Musicians at Play

While the SSYO instills the high standards associated with orchestral life, the young performers also have a lot of fun. In addition to the enjoyment they get from playing music, they thrive on the camaraderie.
“The friendships from SSYO are great,” Button says. “We all get to know each other—especially the musicians in your section—because the group becomes a part of your life.”
Susanne Guske, Marika Klosowski’s mother, says the SSYO has filled a unique role in her daughter’s life this year. “It is actually a stress reducer,” she says. “Marika really gets invigorated by the rehearsals, music, concerts, and the peer group.”
Whatever their motivations and wherever their futures lead, there is a clear sense among these musicians that they are meant to be together—at least for a while.
“The interaction between so many really talented musicians week in and week out is really something special and I’m very lucky to be part of the group,” says Brown. “It’s great exposure to symphony playing, a good look at a lot of standard repertoire I know I’ll be playing again some day, and it’s a lot of fun. Above all, it’s important to remember people become musicians because they love it and feel a special connection with the music.”

The final performance of the SSYO season takes place on Sunday, May 10, 4:30 p.m., at the Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse. For tickets, call 484-8200 or visit the SSO Box Office on the street level of the Civic Center.
For more information about the SSYO’s auditions for the 2009-2010 season, contact Jocelyn Rauch, SSYO manager, at jrauch@syracusesymphony.org. There is a $10 audition fee and a required membership in the New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA).

See more MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS from this series.

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