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Family Entertainment 2018

Young Boston musicians build a bridge to Leipzig

Music director Federico Cortese leads a Boston Youth Symphony rehearsal. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

The Boston Symphony Orchestra isn’t the only orchestra in town building a bridge to Leipzig, Germany. At a Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras concert April 29, the Gewandhaus Youth Choir and Leipzig Opera Youth Chorus will join the top-level Boston Youth Symphony music director Federico Cortese onstage at Symphony Hall for Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms.” And in June, 60 musicians from the youth symphony will travel to Leipzig for a week and perform that piece on the choruses’ home turf.

Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras spokeswoman Erin Keegan Ianni clarified that while the BYSO and the BSO have been partners for some years now, the youth orchestra’s Leipzig exchange was not a product of the BSO’s alliance with Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra.


“The relationships that were built [with the BSO] probably helped to foster relationships that the BYSO was able to have with various folks in Leipzig, but it is something totally separate,” she said. The youth symphony performed at the Gewandhaus 10 years ago, but that event did not include collaboration with a local ensemble. This year, these students will stay with German families and have time to sightsee and socialize with their German counterparts between performances.

Boston Latin School senior and violist Roger Cawdette, 18, was excited for the homestays. “Typically when orchestras tour in other countries they just stay in hotels, but we’ll be staying in the homes of the people there, so we’ll actually get to really envelop ourselves in the German culture,” he said after rehearsal at Boston University last week.

In Leipzig, the students will perform music by Leipzig composers Bach and Mendelssohn as well as “Chichester Psalms.” But this month at Symphony Hall, the rest of the symphonic menu is French: Messiaen’s shifty and colorful “Les offrandes oubliées” and Ravel’s dramatic suites from “Daphnis and Chloé.”

It’s not easy fare by any stretch. “It’s a lot more than just the notes printed on the page,” said violinist Sarah Elizabeth McDermott, 18, who has been involved with BYSO ensembles since 2006. “There’s a lot more flexibility in it, but you can’t get too flexible, because you still need to stay as a whole with the orchestra.”


“These kids tend to outperform their abilities, which is exactly why they love it,” Cortese said in an earlier interview in his office at Harvard University, where he teaches and directs the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. “But the process to get there takes a bit of really strong discipline.”

At last week’s rehearsal, Cortese shouted instructions and exhortations from the podium, rapping his baton on his music stand to stop the orchestra or emphasize a point. “I heard that BYAAAAHHH dah DAAAHH,” the conductor sang, punching his fist into the air. “Legatissimo! The whole, whole effort is to be legatissimo.”

When the music stopped and a player left the stage to retrieve an errant page of sheet music, he addressed the orchestra sternly. “You should be able to see when the page is missing. Can you solve the problem before we crash?” he said. “If you’re driving and you have a flat tire . . . ”

But if you ask the musicians, the leader they call “Fed” doesn’t take that strict attitude off the podium. “I think he can be a little intense sometimes during rehearsal, but on the side he’s very caring and very kind,” said Cawdette. “It’s very easy to talk to him.”


“He’s very open to listening, too,” added McDermott.

“I’m the bad guy,” the conductor said, describing himself. “I pull them up, but I don’t want them to be mean to one another. The old guy can be bad. I think it’s a dereliction of duty when adults can only offer praise and sweet words to kids without demands and care,” he explained. “At the same time, one should really work very hard to try to soften the pressure of competition and fear of failure that these kids have.”

How does one do that? “It’s hard,” he said. “It’s like doing a bow tie. There is no real trick. You need to pull a little on one side, a little on the other side.”


At Symphony Hall, April 29, 3:30 p.m.

Zoë Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.