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May 4, 2022

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.”