In the Suburbs / Swept away by the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestras
This past Saturday, despite the snow, I attended part of a rehearsal of the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestras at the Klein Memorial for a performance the next day.
I was so swept away by pieces like “A Matador’s Tale” and “Courage,” performed by the junior concert orchestra, that I closed my eyes and felt that I was at a performance of the Greater Bridgeport Symphony.
These students, ranging from fifth through 12th grade, were amazing and I felt privileged to have been contacted about this potential column by Beth Ulman, the executive director. Beth has been instrumental (excuse my pun) in building awareness for GBYO, which is the largest orchestra in the region.
While the name of the organization contains the word Bridgeport, this 58-year-old musical treasure actually practices every Saturday in Fairfield at Tomlinson Middle School and draws 365 students from 33 different towns in Connecticut. Beth pointed out that GBYO is so popular that three different families from Waterford drive over an hour each way for weekly rehearsals.
Beth added that while over 30 percent of GBYO’s young musicians come from Fairfield, 12 percent are from Trumbull, 8 percent from Westport, and 7 percent each from Weston and Bridgeport, with students coming from many more towns as well.
“We have never been a Bridgeport-only youth orchestra,” she added. “While we have always been called the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestras, Greater Bridgeport for us actually means suburbs and towns around the state.”
The organization is divided into nine different ensembles. Beth explained that in addition to the entry-level string orchestra and wind ensemble, which take kids as young as fifth grade, there are three full orchestras which students progress through at their own pace. Musicians audition each year and move up the ladder when conductors believe they can take on more challenging repertoires.
GBYO also offers two jazz ensembles, a percussion ensemble, and a high-level chamber orchestra.
The visionary and creative force behind GBYO is Chris Hisey, who was raised in Fairfield. He lives here in town with his wife Heather and their four children. Hisey, who has been music director since 2008, started in GBYO himself as a fifth-grader in 1985. After completing his college education, Hisey returned to GBYO in 1998 as violin and viola coach for the string and symphony orchestras.
Hisey’s background is amazing. Among his major accomplishments in addition to GBYO, he has conducted throughout the United States, Europe and Mexico. He made his international debut with the Philharmonic Orchestra in Ruse, Bulgaria. He has also made appearances with the Pleven Philharmonic in Bulgaria and the St. Petersburg “Klassika” Symphony, formerly the Leningrad State Philharmonic.
Just from my initial meeting with Hisey, I could feel the energy he brings to the organization and the musicians.
In his own words, “Our brand of music is not just about teaching student musicians about the basics of performance, but about helping them understand what to do on stage to make a performance a success.”
He is an avid collaborator, often putting the orchestras together with Fairfield County Children’s Choir and a few years ago, providing a live orchestra for the New England Ballet Company’s performance of “Peter and the Wolf.” In another collaboration, GBYO will perform the iconic Carmina Burana with the Mendelssohn Choir of CT and the Fairfield University Glee Club on March 31 at the Klein.
I thought one of the unique aspects of the orchestra was that GBYO supervisors hire and bring in guest conductors to provide real variety in teaching students. In addition, to give students exposure to living composers, the directors commission new pieces for concerts and actually rehears with the composers.
Beth’s daughter Hannah has been a member of the GBYO for the past seven years and plays the trumpet. This year, she is an 11th grader. Hannah first expressed interest in the trumpet in first grade but actually began playing the instrument in third grade and auditioned for GBYO as a fifth grader. She has been in principal orchestra for four years and is an original member of the 6-year-old GBYO Jazz Ensemble.
Another mom, Valerie, who is also from Fairfield, explained she learned of the orchestra by word of mouth and has two children in GBYO. Her son Henry plays the French horn and her daughter Kate plays violin. Both kids are accomplished pianists and both play in GBYO Jazz Ensembles. Valerie said that many students play more than one instrument.
I can’t wait to attend Carmina Burana on March 31 at the Klein. With the top-level, GBYO Principal Orchestra performing, it is sure to be music to my ear.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.