The Festive Fruits of Fifty Years

The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (and ensembles) put on an unforgettable celebration


It has been almost exactly forty-eight hours since the last note of a truly unique arrangement of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” hung in the air in Overture Hall last Saturday night—and I still don’t know how to even begin to describe the two and a half hours that preceded it.

So let’s just state facts, and hope that some justifiable hyperbole seeps between the lines.

The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, or WYSO, celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their founding by Marvin Rabin. What began as a single ensemble has not only grown to three full orchestras, a string orchestra, a brass choir, a percussion ensemble, a harp ensemble and other chamber groups but (catch your breath) has long been a model in North America and beyond for what this kind of program can and should be.

Such an auspicious occasion called for a celebration on every level, and that’s exactly what a sold-out audience received: five world premieres, guest appearances by coaches and alumni, and that stunning climax of Donald Fraser’s arrangement of the “Ode to Joy,” performed by somewhere over 400 musicians.

At the risk of seeming pedantic, each group and director must be given their due; one can only be sorry not to give greater critical erudition to so many. While patrons filed in, a large screen over the stage presented a slide show of photographs of various WYSO members in rehearsal and performance. As the minutes passed, one began to notice a pattern: Not just the seriousness and focus of the students, but the joy in their faces again and again.

This was soon matched by the joy of live performance, beginning with the Percussion Ensemble’s premiere of Ben Whalund’s “Credo.” A baker’s dozen of players, having their way with multiple mallet instruments and everything percussive one can imagine, romped under the steady hands of Vicki Peterson Jenks. And then we saw what a great job of planning the logistics of the night had been done (could we hire those responsible for some urban infrastructure projects now?): All the seating needed for the larger ensembles was already set on the stage, but back some distance. While the percussion instruments were moved, we enjoyed a brief video on the big screen. When it was time to lift the screen, the Sinfonietta was ready and in place. Throughout the rest of the night, the curtain would drop in front of the large ensemble, and the next small group would set up quickly and play in front of the curtain, and no sooner had they finished than the curtain would rise and the next orchestra would be ready to go. With all the music and necessary acknowledgments, the evening still lasted nearly two and a half hours, without intermission, but it was remarkably seamless and a thoroughly efficient use of time.

The aforementioned Sinfonietta had their new piece from Olivia Zueske, conducted by Mark Leiser. This “Sonata for Sinfonietta” was challenging and fun for players and auditors alike, and then we got the bonus of a Haydn movement and a Ralph Ford arrangement of Duke Ellington.

Next was the brass choir, opening with a rarely heard gem, the Fanfare of Paul Dukas’ “La Peri.” It was followed by a Schop hymn tune and Jan Koetsier’s “Grassauer Zwiefacher.” By the way, the wonderful program book was complete with pithy program notes from WYSO alum and still-youthful local musical mover and shaker Mikko Rankin Utevsky, and UW-Whitewater professor and Madison Symphony member J. Michael Allsen (along with some from the composers of the new works).

The Concert Orchestra gave us Reynard Burns new “Biciclette” and the piquant “Romany Dances” of Elliot Del Borgo, followed by a student/alum string ensemble in a scintillating first movement of Mendelsshon’s Octet. The first of the really substantial new pieces came from the Philharmonia with Michelle Kaebisch conducting Donald Fraser’s fun and stimulating “…in Time!”

A youthful string quartet offered a breezy first movement of Mozart’s K. 136 Divertimento, and then the Youth Orchestra, under the direction of James Smith, premiered Andrew Kinney’s “A Radiant Spirit”—a true homage to the late Marvin Rabin. Their bracing finale of the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 reminded us just how far these musicians come as they get into their mid and late teens. (They are the group pictured above, courtesy of John Harlow).

Executive Director Bridget Fraser was given her due after helping to acknowledge many others…and then the stage was filled to overflowing, with some young string players in an aisle for the 400+ “Ode to Joy.” This was a detailed pastiche of many highlights of that last great symphonic movement of Beethoven’s, and it is hard to imagine a more joyful paean to music making and artistic legacy.

So how will WYSO kick off their next half century this fall?—by adding a fifth orchestra, of course! But we don’t have to wait: There are events coming up in March, April, May and July. Get the details at, get to an event…and feel very young all over again. Bravi to all the generations that have and continue to make WYSO one of our greatest musical treasures.

One thought on “The Festive Fruits of Fifty Years

  1. Sorry I missed this but I may have been working @ the Marriott. For the record, the WI Youth Symphony Orchestra sounds much like the other WYSO–World Youth Symphony Orchestra–at the Interlochen (MI) Arts Academy/National Music Camp.


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