Entering his 10th season as conductor and music director of the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio (YOSA), Troy Peters reflected on a key moment of his musical education.
At the age of 16, as a member of the Tacoma Youth Symphony, Peters approached his conductor with a request that the orchestra perform composer Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.
Before accepting the challenge on behalf of the orchestra, the conductor warned Peters about the piece’s complexity, and asked him to consider whether he and his fellow musicians had the skill level required. Another consideration would be which orchestral works should be programmed around Copland’s enduringly popular work, notable for its unusual length and quiet ending.
That experience became formative for Peters, he said during an interview the week before leading YOSA into its new performance season. Now responsible for the education and development of student musicians, he exercises great care and thoughtfulness in programming to their ability, and in meaningfully pairing orchestral works for performances, he said.
Copland’s masterwork will be the centerpiece of the New World Landscapes concert in May 2019, the capstone of the new season, along with Antonín Dvo?ák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, popularly known as the “New World Symphony,” and Of A Spring Morning by French composer Lili Boulanger.
“We’re playing things now that would not have been imaginable a decade ago,” Peters said – Appalachian Spring included. He attributes the rise in skill level among YOSA musicians to the growth of the organization in general – from five orchestral groups serving 225 students, to nine groups serving 500 students.
More student musicians get more experience and training before reaching the top-tier YOSA Philharmonic orchestra that Peters conducts, he said. “There’s more control of the technique involved in playing orchestral instruments among more of the kids,” he said. “They make a better sound, they can play faster and higher and louder, it’s just a good level of growth.”
Over the McMoon
The season-opening program of Oct. 28, titled New York Stories, will trace other experiences formative to Peters as he studied music.
U.S. composer Ned Rorem, once Peters’ composition teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, will be featured with the boisterous Finale from his Symphony No. 1. Peter’s mentor Daron Hagen, also a student of Rorem’s, will be on the program with the Texas premiere of Nocturne.
Both men were contemporaries of Leonard Bernstein, represented on the program by an early Peters favorite, West Side Story, and three dance variations from Fancy Free to round out the Bernstein centennial celebration begun last season.
“There’s a lot of generations and interconnections” in the program, Peters said, and many musical parallels. “It’s all beautiful music, it’s all music that is rhythmic and melodic, there’s lots of dance energy.”
One piece that departs a bit is a world premiere with a local connection. Piano virtuoso Cosmé McMoon’s Rondo Espagnol, written in 1948, has never before been performed. McMoon’s concerto was unearthed by his grand nephew Mat McMunn in the basement of the old family home in Alamo Heights. (McMunn is the original spelling of McMoon’s pseudonym, which he changed to promote the proper pronunciation.)
Born in 1901 in Mexico, McMoon’s family fled the Mexican Revolution and landed in San Antonio in 1911. The young piano prodigy graduated in 1919 from the Main Avenue Academy – now Fox Tech – and left for New York, where he achieved some celebrity as accompanist for Florence Foster Jenkins, the famously bad singer portrayed by Meryl Streep in the 2016 movie named for Jenkins.
While Jenkins and McMoon recorded one piece he’d written for her, Serenata Mexicana, their recorded and compositional history is slight. McMoon died in San Antonio in 1980 without ever hearing his full-length orchestral piano concerto performed.
After finding his grand uncle’s original composition, McMunn brought it to Peters, who accepted the challenge on behalf of his students, to McMunn’s delight.
“My [grand] uncle was always a champion for young people, all his life. My uncle was a youngster ’til the day he died,” McMunn said.
Guest pianist Thomas Steigerwald will perform the intricate Rondo Espagnol concerto with YOSA in what McMunn promises will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
A little bit of swing
The Jan. 27 program, Time For Three, invites the innovative string trio to San Antonio for a mashup of Americana and American classical music. On the program are Malcolm Arnold’s Four Scottish Dances and George Gershwin’s An American in Paris.
Having experienced guest artists perform can be of great benefit to YOSA students, Peters said.
“When you have somebody with that level of career and that level of virtuosity, you pack a whole bunch of experience in for the kids and the orchestra,” he said, recalling the milestone earlier in his own career accompanying the acclaimed violinist Midori while she performed with the Vermont Youth Orchestra.
In March, YOSA will approach a different level of celebrity with the latest installment in its ongoing Classic Albums Live series. The group will perform a live rendition of Michael Jackson’s platinum-selling Thriller album along with a slate of local musicians.
Though enjoyable for the audience, playing live rock and pop albums also benefits the student musicians of YOSA, Peters said. “It’s good for them to know what a backbeat feels like, and to know how to swing a little bit,” he said, adding “but not too much,” ever the teacher.
More information on the YOSA 2018-19 concert season is available on the organization’s website, and tickets for performances are available at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts box office and website.