Orchestrating success
Sunday, December 18, 2005
By ANGELA ALLEN, Columbian staff writer
www.columbian.com

 

In Columbia Arts Center's basement on a stormy Thursday night, three young musicians settle sheet music on their stands.

"Let's play a little Beethoven," said Victoria Racz, an oboist who directs the Junior Symphony of Vancouver with her husband, Timoteus. With her red hair arranged as precisely as measures of Ludwig van Beethoven's piece, she prepares her wind players for the Dec. 3 "Winter Concert."

The musicians flutist Erin Lowry, 16, clarinetist Christopher Smith, 14, and Quinn Middleman, a 14-year-old oboist draw deep breaths, start in, and for 10 minutes, play the Allegro movement from Trio Op. 87, glancing up enough to watch Victoria's subtle count-keeping and to track one another's phrasing. They don't hit every note perfectly, but they play with an understanding of the piece, its pauses, its dynamics, its changes from fortissimo and pianissimo.

As young as they are, they are dedicated musicians. And they are from Clark County Ridgefield, Camas, Battle Ground, Vancouver, Brush Prairie. It wasn't until 1999, when the Junior Symphony of Vancouver formed, that young classical musicians found kindred spirits during weekly practices at St. Luke's Episcopal Church.

That year, when the Raczes moved from West Linn, Ore., to Vancouver, classical music jumped upscale for Clark County youth. For most students, the orchestra represented major steps up from their high school bands and steps out of their small worlds of private lessons.

"The kids, they were begging me," said Timoteus, who owns Racz European Violins in downtown Vancouver and teaches private violin lessons. "'Why don't you do an orchestra, Mr. Racz?'"

Parents and youth, many of them his and Victoria's private-lesson students, encouraged him. We want something to represent this town, to show off our talents and our kids, they said. We don't want to live in the shadow of Portland, he heard. After all, he and Victoria had put together the Oregon Chamber Players when they were living in Oregon in the mid-1990s.

Why not step up for the kids? said Victoria Racz.

"The arts reflect a community. For a city trying to find its identity, it's important to have a group like this for the future of the community."

First there was Portland

Before the Raczes started the Junior Symphony of Vancouver six years ago, the only nearby classical music groups for kids outside of school bands were in Portland. The differences in leadership and mission shape the Vancouver and Portland ensembles, making each group distinct, and to an extent, a reflection of its community. Portland is bigger, more diverse and has more talent to choose from than Clark County, though certainly as the Southwest Washington area grows, its communities are demanding more resources for children.

The Portland Youth Philharmonic was established in 1924 as the nation's first youth symphony. It requires rigorous auditions and re-auditions. With four ensembles, including two symphony orchestras, its mission is "to maintain the finest youth symphony," said executive director Diane Syrcle. Twenty-seven Clark County kids are among its 270 musicians.

The 32-year-old Metropolitan Youth Symphony, 500 strong, includes about 100 Vancouver-area kids who give up their Saturday mornings to play in one or more of its 12 ensembles at Northeast Portland's Beaumont Middle School. Records show that the symphony has trained 2,600 musicians, continues to grow, and has such well-known graduates as Pink Martini's Thomas Lauderdale and Portland-area trumpeter Derrick Simms. Democratic in its nature, the group, manager Carol Neff said, is wide open to "anyone who can read music and wants to play music. We'll find them a scholarship, we'll practice with them, we'll find them an instrument."

Known as MYS, the youth symphony was founded by 74-year-old Lajos Balogh, a Hungarian, like Timoteus Racz. The two met while teaching at Marylhurst University in Lake Oswego, Ore. Both play violin, and each argues that musical discipline is a shorthand to global communication, and if taught right, smooths the rocky pathway to adulthood.

Balogh, who occasionally takes on the role of Albert Einstein in local productions due to his windblown white hair, can-do spirit, and thick Eastern European accent, plays co-ed soccer. Timoteus Racz, though a fan, doesn't play; he wants to avoid injuring is hands. Otherwise, as Timoteus Racz wryly said, "We don't see much of each other. We don't live in the same neighborhood."

Despite the similarities between Timoteus Racz and Balogh, their youth groups are quite different.

The Junior Symphony of Vancouver is much smaller usually from 15 to 25 kids a term than either of the Portland classical organizations. It plays chamber music, and strings and winds make up the musical mix.

There are differences of scale, as well, just as the groups are in the two very different communities.

The Portland groups wear tuxedos and formal dress for concerts in such acoustically acute venues as the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and Skyview High School Auditorium in Salmon Creek, rather than performing, as the Vancouver group does, in the slightly shabby downtown Vancouver Columbia Arts Center, where acoustics are mediocre at best and seating is about 300.

Other than that, things even out, and it would be a stretch to label any of the groups elitist. Vancouver's group costs a bit less to join if you are a returning player about $225 a year than either Portland group. Scholarships are available, and the missions are similar: to give young musicians a chance to play up to professional standards, and in the process, grow as people.

"We try to take everyone," said Victoria Racz, who runs the group, coaches the wind players but leaves conducting to her husband.

Auditions for the Junior Symphony of Vancouver are once each three-month term, and most often, if a young musician doesn't make the cut, he or she is encouraged to come back and re-audition.

"We don't accept everyone," Victoria said, "but the kids know that we're reserving them for a later time. This is a really small group. If your rhythm is challenged, you'll throw off your teammates. If you're not counting well this time, we want to give you another shot another time."

If a violist or flutist doesn't make it, the Raczes return the $25 audition fee, unlike the Portland orchestras.

Victoria calls her musicians "98 percent exceptional young men and women. They are top of the class, motivated, respectful."

Most have been playing their instruments for at least five years and take weekly lessons. Some compose, like Quinn Middleman, who wrote "Greek Mythology Suite" and premiered her piece at the 2005 June fundraiser concert. For her efforts, her tuition is free this year, thanks to donor Martha McCourt. When Quinn graduates from high school she wants to study at a conservatory and work as a professional musician.

For Quinn, 14, whom Victoria Racz says has "the maturity of a 40-year-old," the junior symphony is a giant leap up from high school music. Though she plays in Mountain View High School's band, Quinn says, "I can hardly hear myself in band. Here, if I'm absent, it matters."

Character through music

Upstairs on the arts center stage, nine of the winds' colleagues, from ages 11 to 16, bow away at violins, violas and cellos, tuning up on Mozart, Bach, Handel. Timoteus Racz is conducting, dapper in a European-cut suit and short, trimmed beard. The kids call him "Mr. Racz," though they call Victoria Racz, "Victoria."

Timoteus expects to be addressed as Mr. Racz.

"We didn't grow up together. I like this class division. I like discipline."

When he gives violin lessons he offers a comfortable chair to a waiting parent. For his students? They sit in straight-backed wooden chairs. He likes to conduct with a baton as much as he likes wearing cuff links and a well-tailored overcoat. For the winter concert he wore a black suit, thin red tie and matching crimson handkerchief in his coat pocket.

During the season, he expects regular attendance, no tardiness and proper dress (black T-shirt, black socks and black pants). Musicians sign a contract and are required to attend the nine or 10 rehearsals a term and the final dress rehearsal and concert. "If you're doing five Nutcrackers or have marching band concerts, you probably shouldn't join up for that term," said Victoria Racz.

Being a musician is a highway to adulthood, music educators agree. Practicing and performing music promotes intelligence and aesthetic appreciation, leadership, communication, self-confidence.

"Musicians have to have discipline," said Metropolitan Youth Symphony manager Neff. "They have to practice and be organized. The majority go on to college. They don't waste time. They give up their Saturdays to play."

Tolerance and persistence are other qualities that music leaders say young musicians hone as they play and practice as part of a larger group.

"A piece of music can look too hard," Neff said, "then they learn it. They always come through. They've accomplished it. It gives them confidence in everything they try. Too hard? They don't even know those words."

Making it work

Portland Youth Philharmonic executive director Syrcle is pleased to see the Junior Symphony of Vancouver alive, if only by a nonprofit shoestring, small grants, donations like Martha McCourt's tuition scholarship, and a once-a-year fundraiser. This year the Limoges Investment Co., Northwest Cancer Specialists and Wells Fargo Bank donated money for the concert venue.

But, as with most fledgling arts groups, survival has been iffy at times, and growing pains have been acute. Not only were the Raczes absorbing the expense and hassle of moving from West Linn to Vancouver in 1999 when they started the youth group, they persuaded their young musicians to perform pro bono concerts. They set up a booth at such events as Taste of Vancouver for recognition, and recruited mentors from the Oregon Chamber Players to help the kids, free of charge.

The non-stop Raczes do all this amid other obligations.

Victoria and Timoteus founded the 11-year-old Oregon Chamber Players, in which they both play. Both play in the chamber players' quartet, and Victoria is part of the Con Grazia Quintet. She heads up the Northwest Oboe Seminar. The Raczes hire themselves out for weddings, they teach lessons, they sell and repair violins.

"There's nothing like a musician to know how to stretch a nickel," Victoria said. "If Donald Trump needs an apprentice, I can tell him how to run things."

But in 2004, after five years of struggling, the Raczes issued a make-it-or-break-it proposition and invited people to a potentially final-curtain June concert. They raised the ticket prices from the usual $10 to $20 and added a silent auction, which has since become a primary fundraiser.

"I stamped my foot and said 'save our season,'" Victoria said. "I made the point to drive home the need for donations. 'Don't take us for granted. Pay attention to us! We're the new kids on the block,'" she recalled thinking a year and a half ago.

It worked. The audience filled the hall. And this year's December concert wasn't sold out, but it was well attended.

Victoria added, "I will never surrender."

And so far she hasn't.

"We're always happy to have more music in the area," said Syrcle, a former Portland Opera outreach educator. "True, there are things not happening in the schools, but also there are great things happening in the schools, and lots of great music education is happening in Clark County. It supports what the youth orchestras are doing."

Victoria Racz said the persistence to make rehearsals happen from 7-9 p.m. every Thursday night and robbing Peter (herself) to pay Paul (concert expenses) make ends meet for a new arts group.

"Week after week, you look at these young musicians having a blast, living music. Sometimes we have to stamp our feet and beg for money, but the show always goes on. There's no way I will see crestfallen faces on these kids."

 

Your brain on music

Ongoing research shows that classical music is good for the brain.

The cerebellum is larger in classically trained male musicians than in men who don't play a musical instrument, Dr. Gottfried Schlaug of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston reported at the Society of Neuroscience convention in 1998. The cerebellum is a region of the brain responsible for posture, balance, coordination and fine motor movements.

Research pursued at the University of California, Irvine, led by psychologist Frances Rauscher, Ph.D, and neuroscientist Gordon Shaw, Ph.D., shows that there is "an unmistakable causal link between music and spatial intelligence, reversing the once commonly held view that music education is irrelevant to intellectual development."

In this study in the mid-1990s, researchers concluded that spatial-reasoning abilities are crucial for such higher brain function such as music, complex mathematics and chess. Results showed that the spatial-reasoning performance of 18 preschool children who took eight months of music lessons far exceeded the spatial reasoning of a demographically comparable group of 15 preschool children who went without music lessons.

A similar study in the late '90s by Shaw and Rauscher showed that children who received piano training performed 34 percent higher on tests measuring spatial temporal ability than children instructed in computers.

"It has been clearly documented that young students have difficulty understanding the concepts of proportion (used in math and science) and that no successful program has been developed to teach these concepts in the school system. The high proportion of children who saw dramatic improvements in spatial-temporal reasoning as a result of musical training should be of great interest to scientists and educators," the research team noted.

Students who study music scored higher on both the verbal and math portions of the SAT than did non-music students, according to the College Entrance Examination Boards, as reported in Symphony, 1996.

Junior Symphony of Vancouver

Directed by Victoria and Timoteus Racz.

Chamber music emphasis with 20 to 30 musicians, ages 11-20.

Cost is $75-$125 a term depending if a student is new or returning. A scholarship is given every year by donor who gives the most money. For two years, the prize has been named for Martha McCourt. The Lori Buerkle Scholarship is named after a striving musician who took violin lessons with the Raczes. This year's winner, violinist Monica Scigliano, received $100 toward music lessons.

Season is arranged in three terms, each with nine rehearsals and a concert. Auditions ($25) required.

Call 360-696-4084.

On the Web: www.oregonchamber players.org.

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