Sunday, May 31, 2015

Celebrating 50 years of the Niagara Youth Orchestra

This weekend was a nostalgic one for a number of area musicians, many of whom came up through the ranks of the Niagara Youth Orchestra and its predecessor, the St. Catharines Youth Orchestra.  Many of them, young and not-so-young alike, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the NYO with a gala concert this afternoon at the Holiday Inn Suites and Conference Centre on Ontario Street.

It was my honour and pleasure to act as emcee for the event, at the invitation of present NYO conductor and music director Laura Thomas.  The conference room at the Holiday Inn Suites was packed to capacity with alumni and well-wishers, everyone there to help celebrate a milestone that began with one man's vision half a century ago.

When founding music director and conductor Paul van Dongen acted on his vision so many years ago, I'm sure even he couldn't imagine the impact it would have on local musicians and the lives he helped to shape with music.  But through his solid musicianship and mentoring techniques, Paul guided many young aspiring musicians into successful musical careers of their own.

Paul was a music teacher with the Lincoln County School music programme at the time in the fall of 1965 when he and fellow music teacher Steven Pettes joined forces to form an orchestra under the auspices of the St. Catharines Symphony Association.  At the time, 69 students between the ages of 12 and 16 met to form the St. Catharines Junior Symphony, which in its very first year performed at the Toronto Kiwanis Music Festival and went on to perform at EXPO '67 in Montreal.

The orchestra was renamed the St. Catharines Youth Orchestra in 1968 and began yearly subscription concert series.  In the following ten years the orchestra contributed more than 100 players to the St. Catharines Symphony and 15 players went on to perform with the National Youth Orchestra.

Founding conductor Paul van Dongen retired from the orchestra in the late 70s, and was replaced briefly by Richard Gremonpre, who in turn was replaced by Tak Ng Lai, who came to Canada the previous year from his native China.  Tak guided the orchestra until December 1992 and at today's concert, mentioned those first 15 years he spent in Canada were amongst his happiest.

Following Tak's tenure, conductor Stan Kopak took the helm in 1992 until his retirement in 2000, and took the orchestra on tour during the 90s to Europe as well as music festivals across Canada.  As a retirement gift to the NYO for their 35th anniversary season in 2000, Stan wrote a celebratory Fanfare, which was conducted today by Paul van Dongen's son Michael, who presently leads the Junior Niagara Youth Orchestra.

The following eight years saw Michael Newnham lead the orchestra, and the touring schedule increased as the NYO toured both the Canadian west and east coasts, as well as Europe.  Michael was unable to attend this weekend's celebrations, but sent a video via YouTube that was shown at the gala concert this afternoon.

The current conductor of the NYO, Laura Thomas, took over in 2008 and continues to guide the youthful charges in their music making to this very day.  It was Laura who conducted the finale to this afternoon's concert, performing Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity from Gustav Holst's The Planets.

My own personal recollections of the NYO go back almost 20 years now when I was invited to act as narrator for a performance of Prokofiev's Peter & the Wolf at the Mandeville Theatre at Ridley College.  I remember vividly that concert, and how nervous I was at the prospect of performing alongside the live musicians.  But all went well and I managed to hit all the cues with help from the conductor.

This entire weekend was a celebratory one for the NYO and the many musicians who have appeared with the orchestra in one capacity or another.  It is not every community that can lay claim to such a lengthy period of time educating and nurturing so many young musicians.  But we can, and we should all be proud of the NYO's accomplishments over the years.

It was great to see so many people come out to support the orchestra today; the dignitaries who brought words of congratulations from all three levels of government, including Mayor Walter Sendzik, MPP Jim Bradley and MP Rick Dykstra; and the young musicians themselves who performed admirably during an admittedly long afternoon.

We have a wonderful musical resource right here in Niagara with the NYO, and here's to another 50 years of music and memories from young musicians showing great promise.  Next year they should be performing at the new First Ontario Performing Arts Centre as a new chapter begins for this storied organization.

My thanks to everyone involved for all their hard work organizing this gala event, and for inviting me to be a part of it.  It was a memorable afternoon I will long remember.

Have a great week!

May 31st, 2015.

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