DCYOP to Premiere Three New Works by Leading Contemporary Composers in May

By Sandy Choi, Community Engagement and Digital Media Manager

From Left to Right: Michael-Thomas Foumai, Clarice Assad, and Kerwin Young.

For Michael-Thomas Foumai, an Indigenous composer from Hawai’i, writing works like Paniolo Credo specifically for student ensembles is a deeply personal mission that reflects his desire to create the music he saw missing from the classical landscape when he was growing up, to draw connections between people and to encourage youth to explore and create through music.  

“Young musicians are the future of music; composing for them is paramount to instilling a curiosity to explore the music of their time from the start of their musical journey,” Mr. Foumai says. “Moreover, it’s the gateway that may spark a musician to become a composer, an opportunity to think of music as a way to communicate.

Foumai’s piece is one of three pieces by living composers who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color, that were commissioned by DCYOP and several partners and played this winter and spring by DCYOP students. Undiscovered Pathways, by local composer and University of Maryland student, Adrian B. Sims, was given its world premiere at our winter concert last December. Two more new works, A Retirada by Clarice Assad and Paniolo Credo by Mr. Foumai, will be given their world and East Coast premieres respectively at this month’s end of season concerts. 

The commissioned works are the result of a partnership with the K-12 New Music Project and a grant from the League of American Orchestras to the University of Maryland’s National Orchestra Institute + Festival, led by our own Maestro Richard Scerbo. DCYOP has worked with Prince George’s County Public Schools, and the Hawai’i Youth Symphony to commission and perform the works, written specifically for student ensembles.

For Mr. Foumai, writing for young people started when he himself was a young person.

“I was 13, and it was a hobby just for myself. I created musical stories about the extinction of the dinosaurs, the Arabian Nights, the Aztecs, the wild west, and the Egyptian pharaohs. Once I gathered the courage to share my music with friends, they wanted to play it. So, I composed and arranged substantially for my high school and youth orchestra. I wrote what sounded cool and wasnʻt thinking if this music was playable—and much of it was beyond our technical capabilities—but it was music as a young musician that was electrifying. I wanted to perform it and share it. This kind of music wasn’t in the school music library; it had to be written.

“I hope my music will introduce and share the fascinating histories and stories of my Hawai’i home, cultivate curiosity to explore metaphors in music, and listen to how musical ideas are connected and developed over time.”

Clarice Assad also draws deeply from her roots to inspire young people to appreciate the full diversity of their own family traditions and cultures.

“I am originally from Brazil and have a deep sense of connection with its music,” she shares. “It is a huge country, with distinct regions, each with their own rich cultures, traditions, music, and dance. However, so little of it is known outside of Brazil – and even in the Brazil of more recent years, generations that grew up in the era of globalization have a tendency to mirror the dominating culture, which has been for decades, rooted in the pop culture of the US.”

In her opinion, the homogenization of different cultures can lead us to lose sight of what empowers us to flourish.

“In a cultural sense, when we only get exposed to one type of genre or music, we might become too narrow-minded, and never get past a set level of awareness,” she says. 

Exploring and sharing her love for her Brazilian heritage with others has been one way that this prolific artist has continued to grow as a composer, especially when it comes to writing for students.

“I love engaging with young minds, and I learn a lot from every exchange,” she says. “Writing for young students is amazing because it makes my creative process a lot more conscious such as finding the balance between accessibility, and fun, for example. I put a lot of energy into making sure every single part has something interesting and meaningful to play.”

In addition to the works by Ms. Assad and Mr. Foumai that have come to us through K-12 New Music Project, DCYOP is also giving the long-awaited world premiere of Sulwe, an orchestral adaptation of the children’s book by actress and activist, Lupita Nyong’o, by award-winning music producer, educator and composer, Kerwin Young. The project was first conceived back in late 2019 shortly after the book was published.

“I wanted to write something that was relevant to now. Sulwe was a fresh book, maybe out only two weeks. I like to do things that no one is thinking of.”

Inspired by the message of Ms. Nyong’o’s book, it took Mr. Young less than three months to write his piece for full orchestra.

“I wanted to highlight Sulwe’s relationship with nature, and then capture the process of how she came to terms with self-acceptance in the book, going from self-doubt to self-love. I developed different motific ideas and had to work to link them up but still make it fun and playable for youth orchestra.”

While most people may know Mr. Young as an award-winning, multi-platinum, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame recording producer for legendary Hip-Hop artists such as Public Enemy and Ice Cube, he notes that composing was always a part of his job. In addition to years of intensive self-study, Mr. Young returned to college later in life to formally study composition with Chen Yi, Zhou Long, and Bobby Watson, at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music, where he earned both Bachelor and Master of Music degrees. For over thirty years now, he has composed and produced a wide range of original works for film, television and the concert stage. No matter what format he is writing for, Mr. Young stays true to ideas at the core of his vision for a new piece.

“Whatever subject I choose, I like for that to be the seed that I’m going to get my ideas from. When I’m sketching and writing, it’s solely based on the subject I’m dealing with but when I go to orchestrate it, then I might bring some jazz elements into how I want to voice some chords. I like a lot of crunchy stuff so I might put some ninths in there. For the most part I take myself out of it.”

Having established an incredible, multi-faceted career through passion, hard work, and determination, Mr. Young’s advice to young musicians looking to pave their own career path in music is heartfelt but frank.

“Learn all of the music. Include all the music that you’re interested in learning and learn it. Just dive into all of it and connect it. It shouldn’t be separated. Learn the business, learn about music publishing if you want to create. And don’t give up because it’s going to be difficult, there’s going to be a lot of people who put roadblocks up in your way for no apparent reason just because they can. You gotta keep at it.”

DCYOP’s Youth Orchestra and Youth Philharmonic will be performing the world premieres of Clarice Assad’s A Retirada and Kerwin Young’s Sulwe: A Musical Adaptation, as well as the East Coast premiere of Michael-Thomas Foumai’s Paniolo Credo, on May 15th at the University of the District of Columbia’s Theater of the Arts. The Youth Orchestra will also be performing Sulwe on its tour of Spain and Portugal this summer.

DCYOP Violinists Star in Spring Concerts

By Sandy Choi, Community Engagement and Digital Media Manager

Aurora Su (left) and Whitney Buch (right) will both be featured soloists during our Spring Concert weekend.

As we return to the University of the District of Columbia’s Theater of the Arts for our end-of-season concerts, two of our own violinists will take the stage in solo performances – one a veteran of the program and the other a brand new member of the DCYOP family.

Whitney Bruch, an eighth-grade student at St. Stephens and St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Virginia, is an ISL champion for cross country with a record mile time, a regional science fair first prize winner, and a lead volunteer of a Handwriting Club for ESL students. Somewhere in between all of that, she finds the time to study the violin and play in both the DC Youth Orchestra and Young Virtuosi (YV) chamber orchestra.

“I really enjoy being part of the YV,” Whitney says. I have made a lot of friends within the group. It is one of the best parts of my week. One of my favorite parts is that Mr. Solomon shares funny stories with us, and when I ask him questions, he always fully answers them and encourages me.”

Whitney has been a member of DCYOP since she joined the Young Artists Orchestra six years ago. She currently studies with Leo Sushansky and Kim Fisher, and she began her violin studies at the age of six with Emil Chudnovsky. For Whitney, it’s a dream come true to make her solo debut performing the first movement of Mozart’s Concerto No. 3 with the YV on the May 15th afternoon concert.

“Getting to play the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3 with the YV is a great honor, and I am so excited to get to perform as a soloist. Ever since I was eight years old, I have wanted to pursue music professionally, and I am so honored and thankful that Mr. Solomon has chosen me to play with the YV.”

At just six years old, Aurora Su had only been studying violin for three years when she joined the Young Artists Orchestra as one of its students this past fall. She has been studying with Magdalena Richter since she was four years old, and recently started to also take lessons with Emil Chudnovsky. Aurora will be performing the first movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in E Major with members of the Young Virtuosi on our May 14th afternoon concert.

“I like being with the orchestra playing together with many instruments,” Aurora told us. It has been her first experience playing with an ensemble and she has really loved being able to rehearse and perform with other students.

Aurora has already won several competitions including the first and second rounds of her division in the 2022 Crescendo Competition, which gave her the opportunity to make her debut performance at Carnegie Hall earlier this year.

“I loved it!” Aurora exclaimed when asked about the experience. “I felt happy and joyful playing on the stage. The hall was so big, bigger than I expected. I loved the sound. I like standing up on a stage and performing.”

Aurora’s love of music goes beyond just violin, which she says she was drawn to because she liked its beautiful sound. She also plays the piano, and enjoys composing and improvising on both instruments. She frequently shares her love of performing on her Instagram account (@aurora_su_violinist), where she has over 3,200 followers. Aurora is also an avid artist who loves to read non-fiction books, especially about animals and famous historical figures, and write her own poetry.

A Maestro’s Journey

YO and YP Principal Conductor, Kenneth Whitley, reflects on returning to Spain with the YO thirty years after their last visit and the power of music to build cultural bridges

By Sandy Choi, Community Engagement and Digital Media Manager

Maestro Whitley conducts the Youth Philharmonic at the Winter 2021 concert.

“Hey, we’re going a trip to Japan, you should come!” That’s how Maestro Kenneth Whitley, now a Principal Conductor of both the Youth Orchestra and Youth Philharmonic, first joined the DCYOP family as a high school junior.

That 1978 tour to Japan was just the beginning of a relationship that has spanned decades and many life changes. And it’s taken him on subsequent tours to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korean, Spain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, as a member of the DCYOP staff.

Mr. Whitley’s career at DCYOP officially began after he completed his Bachelor and Master of Music degrees at the University of Michigan. Although he started out as a sectional coach, he quickly rose through the ranks as a conductor, beginning with the Preparatory Orchestra in 1986. By the 1991-1992 season, he was conducting the Youth Orchestra.

Maestro Whitley and members of the Youth Orchestra at the Washington National Cathedral Choral Society Festival just before departing on their tour to Spain in 1992.

This was also the year that Mr. Whitley made his international debut as principal conductor of the Youth Orchestra on its tour to Spain. The orchestra presented not one but two full programs of ambitious music that included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 and Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn.

“We took two complete concerts on tour in part because we were in Spain for twelve days and we gave nine concerts in those twelve days. It was exhausting! And yet, they did what kids do and they just pulled it out. One of my most memorable experiences as a conductor was conducting Beethoven’s Sixth. The kids, they just came alive.”

As anyone who has ever had the privilege to tour knows, the experience is not just about making the music.

“There are two things that I always come back to in remembering this tour,” says Mr. Whitley. “One of them are the beautiful, ancient cathedrals that we played in. Probably four of five were in these tiny, tiny villages where the center of the town was the cathedral, the church in the middle of the town plaza. The second part was this feast that the people in the community would throw for us. All homemade foods, all people who were just humble people who were just so appreciative of music and of this young American orchestra who has come to visit their town.

“Those were such great exchanges and moments for our kids. It was revealing for them to see how they contributed to someone else’s life for a moment. Many of our kids never traveled before, and just hadn’t had experiences outside of the United States. And to have that kind of an embrace was really powerful.”

Mr. Whitley believes that the upcoming tour presents priceless opportunities for students to not only learn and grow but to also showcase all the hard work and effort they have poured into their music over the past few years.

“I’m really excited that our kids will get to sit with other students, exchange ideas and just broaden our cultural friendships. I’m excited about collaboration and having the opportunity to share music. That’s always something I think our kids need to experience so I’m glad we’re able to do that.”

Learning to navigate the challenges of the pandemic have given our students a new energy and put power behind the music they are playing, according to Mr. Whitley.

“They are on a mission to be heard, to be with each other and to serve the music. They are absolutely ready for this trip in terms of where they are not just as musicians but with their hearts also in the right place.”