The moment I found contemporary flute music in college, I remember it felt like everything clicked into place. I knew how my voice was supposed to sound through my instrument. It made me feel completely alive. It’s safe to say I haven’t looked back since.

Turns out, while I was drowning in traditional excerpts in high school, some of my peers found a contemporary outlet to supplement their music education. Cellist  and fellow 2005 graduate of Mentor High School, Joseph Weagraff, participated in Contemporary Youth Orchestra for two seasons.

“I went to a CYO show at the Rock Hall,” Weagraff said. “They were performing The Doors concerto and I was so blown away and impressed. I had an interest in graphic design and the orchestra had a logo and it seemed so professional and put together, like nothing I had ever seen. They were playing at the Rock Hall, it was so cool.”

Weagraff continued to attend CYO concerts while he was in college. “I had kind of regularly been attending CYO shows while I was at Ohio State and I attended a show and it wasn’t sold out and I said, why in the world is this not sold out? I really want to help wherever I can to expose as many audience members to this group as possible. At that point, I talked to Liza and I ended up on the board of trustees and helped where I could there. Then the manager position became available and I joined in January as a team member.”

The orchestra will be performing with Ben Folds at their forthcoming concert on June 2, 2014 at 7:30pm at Severance Hall. I had the opportunity to chat with director, Liza Grossman, as well as Joseph Weagraff about the benefits of the orchestra to its students and community as well as how they select the musicians they will collaborate on their concerts.

Go ahead and tell me what CYO is and how the students that are involved get involved in it.

Liza Grossman: CYO is the first and still the only youth orchestra in the United States that focuses on new music. We don’t play any of the standard classical repertoire or even necessarily what would be considered standard contemporary repertoire. We focus on things that are new. We like to involve up-and-coming composers. We bring new ideas to the orchestra that have not been done before. I feel like in our almost twenty year history that we have really done things that other orchestras are just now starting to consider doing in order to build their own audiences. But it’s something that we’ve been doing not for necessarily audience builder, but audience builder sort of comes with innovative programming, but the motivation behind this was to teach my student education without blinders.

We are in residence at Cleveland State. It’s basically a high school orchestra, there’s a couple of eighth graders in the group. I can safely say it’s ages 13-18. we are supportive of the programs in our musicians’ public schools. They need to be participating in something in their school’s music program. We are in addition to, not a supplement. Their being part of their school orchestra is only going to make their community stronger, and therefore our community stronger. It’s this sort of a full circle when it works both ways.

The potential students can find out what they need by going on our website. Joe put this together; it’s a beautiful website that I think pretty much answers all the questions. The language of the website is speaking to people; we’re not giving them a historic breakdown and talking to them in legalese, if you will. We’re having a conversation with people through our website, which I think is on this side of contemporary because it’s very inclusive. They can sign up for an audition there. They can email us and ask us if they can sit in on a rehearsal. Most of our rehearsals are open to the public. They can also find us through our YouTube channel, where there is a really nice representation of the work that we’ve done and Facebook, where there’s daily updates. That, of course, is the most immediate, if they find us on Facebook. Or they can also follow us on Twitter or Instagram.

Joe Weagraff: I think that the website, but also kind of everything we do, is future focused. The history is there, our mission and all, but we’re practically living in the future. That’s a really cool thing to be for us and all the kids.

LG: But it is true. I had lunch with an alum on Tuesday and he had mentioned an idea that he thought would be really great for CYO. And I said, “Oh, great minds think alike! That’s really wonderful. That’s already happening in season 21.” And he was like, how do you already know what you’re doing in season 21, when you’re just finishing up 19?” But that’s the thing. There are so many amazingly cool things to do, so living in the future is also accurate in terms of the planning for all of the things we want to be able to do. We’re never stagnant in our rehearsal process and the way we present programs and how we’re thinking about what else we want to do. There has yet to be a moment in my existence with this orchestra where I’ve had to go, what am I going to do? It’s been more like, when am I going to be able to do all these things?

Do your students have an input in collaborating on some of the ideas of what you’re doing?

LG: My students have an input on interpretation. CYO is not run as a hierarchy from the podium, necessarily, but there’s more democracy involved in the music process. I want my students to become independent thinkers. In order to be able to give them that ability, they need to be able to have input on interpretation of a world premiere. And we do so many of them. This is a regular thing in rehearsal, because I want them to think about it, I’ll say try this bowing, okay, now how did that feel, did you feel like you were able to get out the phrasing that I was talking about? And it’s gotten to the point by the first concert, with I’d say about half of them, where they will say, can we try this instead or I liked the other way better or this is awesome, let’s do this. And then we talk about why something feels better. Or a breathe mark in the winds or brass section. Do you want to place it here or here? Play the differences and let’s see which one makes more sense phrase-wise with what’s going on in this section. They actually get input which I think is helping them not only be better musicians but humans with an opinion and not being a part of a herd.

But in terms of helping us choose repertoire, I can give you an example. For season 20 I asked them if they would prefer to do Broadway or horror music because I was struggling with which one I wanted to do. Do we want to do an entire concert of horror music and talk about the intricacies of that or do you want to do a Broadway show? And we talked about the difficulties of both, but I wanted their opinion. They wanted to do Broadway for season 20 and horror for season 21. They felt that Broadway was more celebratory being that it’s our twentieth season and so they had an opinion on that. That’s not very often that I do that, but I will discuss with them different things that I am thinking about. As Joe said, they’re constantly in the future and thinking forward, so it’s not just this concert, it’s oh my God, guess what we’re doing next March? And with Ben Folds, I asked them if they wanted to go after him. We asked them that in October. And they did, so we went after Ben and we got him.

How do you select the musicians that you do collaborative concerts with?

LG: There’s so many ingredients. My personal taste, who do I want to work with and why, what will the music be like orchestrally. Who I want to work with and why it always sort of centers around the same thing. I like who the band or individual artist is as a musician, I think they have a lot to say. I think that how they have been presented through the public through their career is also really important and interesting. And musically, are their charts going to transcribe easily for orchestra and will it be interesting?

Do you do all the transcription work?

LG: CYO has a team of composers that do the work.

Are they local?

LG: Most of them are.

What impact do you think having the Cleveland Orchestra here has on your group?

LG: Having one of the best professional orchestra on the planet available to us on a weekly basis, what else is there to say besides that? It’s pretty incredible. The orchestra is a young orchestra right now. They’re in between their 30s and 50s; it’s a relatively young orchestra. There’s a really great energy on that stage. Not only the access of the orchestra, but the members themselves. CYO has a relationship with the members of the orchestra, where the members have come in to do sectionals, to work with the different sections on their music and we have commissioned nine or ten concertos for orchestra members. I don’t know of another youth orchestra in the States that has had as many professional orchestra members as soloists on a world premiere concerto as we have had. So the impact is big—it’s that they’re here, that we have access with them, that the players are generous and come in and share their time, and that they get up on the stage and trust us on not only commissioning a piece of music but also being strong enough and confident enough to help them present a really wonderful premiere.

That’s got to be really cool for your students.

LG: I would think that it’s pretty inspiring for them to be part of that. But again, this is another full circle thing, I think it’s inspiring for the soloists as well.

How do you rehearse for a show like this one with Ben Folds?

LG: We’ve done shows that have been televised live and have had a different type of rehearsal process with different artists. We’ve had ones that have been recorded for television that were a different rehearsal process. It depends what we’re doing with the concert. If we’re going live and it’s being televised live, there’s a different kind of preparation that needs to go into it. With Ben, for example, we have all of his charts now, we’re rehearsing without him but we know his recordings each one of the charts is based off of which is very fortunate so the orchestra members and I can study the piece from there and really get to know the way that Ben plays certain pieces. He’ll come in and we’ll have probably six hours with him for a two and a half hour show, which is not a lot of time, but it gives the students a glimpse at what it would be like to sit down in a professional gig and do this.

Why do you think that CYO is a necessary part of the Midwest music scene?

JW: It’s everything that the Midwest embodies. It’s people doing things that they really love. It’s music that is authentic. It’s a strong mission uniting. It’s everything that the Midwest could be. I think if another CYO or another group like this were to exist on the West Coast or somewhere else that it wouldn’t have the same heart that it does here.


The Contemporary Youth Orchestra has also just been announced as the official orchestra for this year’s Alternative Press Music Awards, taking place at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on July 21st. Tickets for that event are available here.