April 1, 2013

By Daniel Gibbard

Late last summer, as a new season dawned for the North Shore’s Canzonetta youth orchestra, leaders Helia Schramm and maestro Hilel Kagan were casting about for a theme for the senior students, those entering their last year with the orchestra. They decided to call it “The Year of the Concerto.”

The idea was to emphasize that, unlike in most youth orchestras, every Canzonetta musician gets the opportunity to play a solo before a concert audience.

“Most youth orchestras give the opportunity to solo only to the select few who are planning to major in music in college and have music as their career,” Schramm said.

Kagan finished her thought. “One person wins a competition, they play solo,” he said. “The person who was second never gets the chance.”

Parents applaud the focus. Wendy Shelton has had three daughters play with Canzonetta, including Emmy, 16, a sophomore at New Trier who plays in the school’s orchestra.

“Emmy has matured dramatically as a musician after preparing and performing her concertos. She says these performances make Canzonetta more fun, challenging and interesting,” Wendy Shelton said. “I don’t know of any other orchestra that has this type of solo opportunity.” That reality points to another reason the soloing has been popular—students who do not plan to make their careers in music tend to spend much more time and effort on the things that will help them on their paths to their working lives. In the highly competitive towns of the north suburbs, that often means loading-up on tough courses to prepare for college.

“It’s usually a time when kids put their instrument on the back burner,” Schramm said. But through Canzonetta, “they come alive in their music and regain their interest in their instruments.”

Ingunn Lonning has noticed that in her son, Tor Shepherd, 15.

“Playing solos challenges my son and makes him practice more,” Lonning said. “It is very motivating for a student to have the accompaniment of his friends.”

The Year of the Concerto has resonated with students too. “It is rather scary at first, because you have to do so much more than you would have to do if you just playing in the orchestra,” said Elizabeth Bellisario, of Park Ridge. “But it is really fun!”

“Doing a solo is different from playing in the orchestra,” said Grace Avila, of Glenview. “You put more ‘you’ into it. You get to show off, almost.”

A bonus for the kids is that, because every player will have their chance to shine, the musicians learn to enjoy accompanying each other.
There is no need for rivalries.

“It has fostered a feeling of camaraderie instead of competition. They support each other,” Kagan said. “They’re just trying to be the best they can be.”

Kagan and Schramm help the students choose concertos that match the musicians’ interest and abilities. Students play at least one concerto during the year, and some play several.

Esther Spodek’s son, Evanston Township High School student Daniel Ostrow, 16, is working on his fourth.

“Hilel has worked to help him find a piece that he enjoys playing, and that works for him and the group,” Spodek said. “Hilel has high standards of excellence, and works with the kids to produce a fine product.”

“We found that all of the students have a great deal of talent,” Kagan said. “We just bring it out and nurture it!”