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The Maestros: American Youth Philharmonic Orchestras [elan magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
elan magazine
February 2008
Photos by Steve Barrett

All eyes were on the 118 teenage students of the American Youth Philharmonic (AYP) during a performance on the grand stage of the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria.

It was a special afternoon, indeed, for the auditorium was packed with students thanks to a special offer from the parent organization, the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestras
(AYPO). As part of its community outreach program, it provided more than 300 free concert tickets to children.

“We love showing off the talents of all of our student musicians from Maryland, Virginia and D.C.,” says a proud Tomoko Azuma, executive director of the AYPO, whose mission is to expose as many children as she can to orchestral music: “The gift of learning to appreciate music is something we want to give to every child in the region. Our kids are truly working at a professional level, and I know anyone who watches them perform will be blown away.”

Of course, it took a lot of hard work, support and determination to get students to play at this level. That’s where the conductors of the AYP come in.

Although it may tough to imagine 90 elementary school-age children performing the works of Bach and Beethoven, the youngest performers in the American Youth String Ensemble (AYSE) nail it nearly every time.


Much of their success can be attributed to the skill and patience of AYSE conductor Cheri Collins, an accomplished violinist who also heads up the music program at Oakton High School.

‘I am blessed to work with an amazing group of musicians who just happen to be in second to eighth grade,” she says. “They are extremely dedicated, open-minded people who can’t seem to get enough information about music. I firmly believe that when you have motivated students, all you need to do is expect the best from them and challenge them. Time and time again, they meet all expectations.”

A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, Cheri began playing violin in elementary school. By the time she was in college, she was performing with the Manhattan Contemporary Chamber Symposium.

She was then selected to play first violin in the Sao Paulo State Symphony. Just
months of arriving in Brazil, she was chosen to teach 48 violin students at a music camp as part of a government-sponsored pilot program. That experience defined and created her style of teaching and relating to young musicians, she says.

Later, Cheri played first violin with the Florida Orchestra in Tampa. Since relocating to Northern Virginia, she has performed with the American Chamber Orchestra, the Baltimore Opera and National Symphony Orchestra. She is also a recording artist for National Geographic’s Discovery series.


J.D. Anderson is currently in his sixth season leading the American Youth Concert Orchestras, a group of 93 middle school and early high school students being groomed to perform with the advanced groups of the AYPO.

A native of Vienna, J.D. received a B.A. in music education from the University of Illinois and an MA in educational administration from Virginia Tech. After serving as orchestra conductor for the Champaign Urbana Theater Company, he returned to Falls Church to head the music department at Longfellow Middle School where he built a band program that became recognized as one of the finest in the country by the John Philip Sousa Foundation. In 2000, Longfellow was one of only 29 middle schools in the nation to receive the Sousa Foundation’s prestigious Sudler Cup.

“I have wanted to be a music teacher ever since I was in eighth grade,” says J.D. “There are no better people to be around than young musicians. I have a great deal of appreciation for the AYPO program and am most pleased to continually be able to develop a lasting rapport with these fabulous young musicians.”


Carl Bianchi works with slightly older students who make it through nail-biting AYPO auditions and land a spot in the American Youth Symphonic Orchestra (AYSO). Now in his 17th year as conductor, he also serves as president of the American Bandmasters Association, a job he never imagined he’d have during his 29 years as Director of Bands at James Madison High School in Vienna.

Under Jeff’s baton, Madison’s band represented Virginia at the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic in 1980 and 1992, and performed at the New York Directors Symposium, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Barns at Wolf Trap.

Like the other AYP conductors, Jeff graduated from a prestigious music school-the Eastman School of Music, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music and a performer’s certificate in French horn. He then toured the world with the Eastman Philharmonic Orchestra under the auspices of the State Department and played with the U.S. Marine Band in Washington, D.C., while doing graduate work at Catholic University.

Since then, he has performed with the National Gallery Orchestra, the Washington Ballet Company Orchestra and the Washington Opera Society.

Jeff’s AYSO group is comprised of about 100 students.

“I attribute the size and talent of my group to the fact that more students are rising up in the ranks of the AYPO. With the quality of this organization, up is the only place they have to go,” he says.


Doug Wallace knows about percussion. With a B.A. and a performance certificate from the Eastman School and a master’s degree from Julliard, he brings experience and passion to his work as director of the AYPO’s Percussion Ensemble.

In fact, his success rate of preparing students to land spots at some of the nation’s top music schools is close to 100 percent.

“They have a goal, and I do my best to help them perform in a professional orchestra,” he notes. “But I realize they are kids, and they aren’t getting paid for any of their work. I also know they will make mistakes. But still, I make them work hard.”

After all, he says, if these students—who also play percussion with the symphonic and concert orchestras—want to make it in the big leagues, they need to be disciplined, focused and willing to play until their fingers are raw.

Doug has been there.

When he isn’t working with AYPO, he is performing at the Kennedy Center and The National Theater. He also spends much of his time training dozens of other young percussionists at local schools and through his own private music studio. In fact, his teaching techniques are highlighted in his new method book, Percussion With Class, published by FJH Music Publishing Company.

“There isn’t a student in the AYP who doesn’t look up to Luis Haza,” says executive director Tomoko Azuma. “They have immense respect for him. His devotion to young people and their musical education is exemplary, he has the highest expectations of students and they consistently deliver their best under his tutelage.”


In fact Haza, who plays first violin with the National Symphony Orchestra, is one of the most renowned musicians in the world. But like most great artists, his climb to the top was tumultuous.

Born in Cuba, Haza was only eight when his father was executed without trial along with 70 other prisoners died January 1959 during the Castro Cuban Revolution.

Music became an outlet for the young Luis, who began taking violin lessons at age nine and quickly earned a reputation as child prodigy. By the time he turned 12, he was an associate concertmaster of one of Cuba’s professional orchestras.

He and his family finally made passage to America in 1964.

As a 14-year-old, Luis started playing violin at a restaurant to earn money. A member of his church found him a violin teacher who played with the National Symphony Orchestra. Within a few years, he was sent to study at the Peabody Conservatory of Music and then the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Today, Luis makes it his mission to help other young musicians. In addition to continuing to perform and guest conduct with the National Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra and the national orchestras of Salvador, Panama and Guatemala.

He is in his 24th season as music director of the AYP His next goal: To conduct the AYP at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “We’ll see,” he says.

For more visit: www.ayporchestras.org.


More Elan magazine / Artist profiles Articles

"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.