Midwest Young Artists Conservatory - Symphony Center
A quarter century ago, conductor/educator/double bassist Dr. Allan Dennis had a dream. With many years of experience under his belt educating young musicians in the Chicago area, he found a deficit of opportunities for ensemble training for the best and brightest talent. There had long been an ample supply of bright and eager students, supportive parents, and exceptional artist teachers plying their craft. Musicians spend endless hours in solitary pursuit of artistic excellence, but ultimately the art of music comes alive primarily as a collaborative art, and an enthusiastic audience of supporters is critical in the pursuit of excellence.
Out of the this dream was born Midwest Young Artists Conservatory. Dennis quickly secured a physical home among the century old, stately buildings of Fort Sheridan in the northern suburbs of Chicago. With years of accumulated contacts among area music educators and professionals, Dennis was able to offer parents and students a comprehensive collection of ensembles, from the MYA Symphony Orchestra under his baton, to chamber ensembles, choral groups, and jazz combos.
The fruits of these endeavors are manifest in many ways. Dozens of these students have gone on to established careers as world class performers, many with positions in symphony orchestras, chamber ensembles, and countless other performing institutions. Others, inspired by the first class artistic guidance from their years at MYA, have themselves become educators at every level from K through 12 to higher education. Still more have chosen careers in other professions, but even these students continue to make music a central part of their lives, and usually pass on their love of the musical arts to their children. The virtuous cycle spins on.
Many of these alumni and more gathered Friday night for a truly extraordinary event: the 25th anniversary season Celebration and Alumni Concert at Symphony Center on Michigan Avenue in Chicago’s loop. Not only did hundreds of performers congregate on the hollowed home stage of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but numerous current and former ensemble directors lead choruses, jazz ensembles, and a truly massive symphony orchestra.
Conductor Stevi Marks opened the festivities with an appropriately wistful rendition of folk singer Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle. No doubt fond memories came flooding through the minds of MYA’s loyal supporters in attendance. Next the chorus evoked the holiday season with New Dance for the Sugar Plum Fairy, an adaptation of the Tchaikovsky standard by Amy Engelhardt, complete with swinging rhythms and finger pops. Their final number, the Styne/Comdon/Green standard Make Someone Happy could stand in as MYA’s mantra.
Quentin Coaxum has injected a shot of adrenalin into MYA’s jazz program since taking the helm this past year, but the inclusion of former directors Chris Madsen and Nic Meyer was a reminder of the stellar heritage of jazz studies at the school. Tchaikovsky’s seminal ballet was again an inspiration, this time for Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Overture. The tune works well in swung time, and the students had great fun with the transformation. The triple time With Gratitude composed and directed by Chris Madsen was also an apt expression of students and parents. But for all of the reminders of happy memories, Mercer Ellington’s Things Ain’t What They Used to Be (lead by all three directors) was an exhortation that the best years lie ahead.
I can’t be certain that a record was set, but I can’t imagine that a larger symphony orchestra has ever graced Orchestra Hall in the 115 years since legendary architect Daniel Burnham built the landmark performance venue. Well over 200 current students and alumni performed in the short program, and space was so tight that the brass sections performed from the choral balcony at the rear of the main stage.
A cheerful, vivid reading of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide opened the program, conductor Allan Dennis wisely choosing a moderate tempo that allowed the massive ensemble to cohere. The woodwind sections were in find form, lending the score an infectious effervescence. There are few more rousing symbols of celebratory triumphalism than the finale of Beethoven’s mighty 5th Symphony, and the young brass players brought it home in grand, ringing fashion.
On the other end of the musical spectrum, the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is one of the most beloved slow movements in the symphonic repertoire. Dennis led his string players in a glowing rendition, tenderly lyrical and punctuated with a pair of searing climaxes. Excerpts from Daphnis and Cholé (Suite No. 2) demonstrated fleet virtuosity from every section, and a bold, virile account of Brahm’s Academic Festival Overture closed the program in rousing fashion. There was a palpable sense of pride and accomplishment among musicians and supporters for this quarter century of extraordinary achievement, and a sense of hope that the coming years will find the Midwest Young Artists Conservatory an ever more vital part of the community.