Art beat: For the love of music

Minnesota Youth Symphonies prepares for another season

Standing on his conductor’s podium, Manny Laureano jerks and stutter-steps, doing his best impression of a broomstick magically coming to life.

The symphony orchestra erupts in giggles. They’re mostly teenagers, but it’s likely they’re familiar with the scene Laureano is miming, a section of the 1940 Walt Disney animated feature “Fantasia” set to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

A few minutes earlier, Laureano had cut off the orchestra with a wave of his baton. His impression was meant to help them better feel the piece’s shifts in tempo, and it seemed to work. When he raised his baton again, the sound was fuller, tighter and more precise.

“The Socerer’s Apprentice” is not on the program for the Minnesota Youth Symphonies [MYS] season-opening concert in November. But sight-reading a challenging selection from the classical repertoire is, for one of the region’s most highly regarded youth symphonies, a way to relax.

“That’s what they sound like when they don’t know what they’re doing,” Laureano said afterward, referring to mistakes that were hard for an untrained ear to identify.

Peter Ostroushko will join the MYS Symphony Orchestra — the most advanced of four MYS orchestras — when they play at Orchestra Hall later this month. But Ostroushko wasn’t expected to join them until the dress rehearsal, just before the concert.

“The point is to have them so prepared for any eventuality that no matter what [Ostroushko] throws at them, as long as I’m ready, they’ll be ready,” Laureano said.

It takes seriously dedicated — not to mention talented — group of young musicians to pull that off, and that’s exactly what Laureano has.

“We like to look at the Minnesota Youth Symphonies as truly a training program,” he said. “They’re not coming in merely to get ready for concerts. They are coming to MYS to learn all the parts of becoming a musician.”

A unique challenge

MYS celebrated its 35th season last year, an anniversary that coincided with Manny Laureano’s 20th year as co-artistic director with his wife, Claudette. Claudette Laureano conducts the MYS Repertory Orchestra, just one step below the Symphony Orchestra.

MYS draws players from all over Minnesota and western Wisconsin, but the majority live in parts of the Twin Cities, including Southwest.

Many of the young people who reach this level of playing share a common story. At one point or another, they fell in love with orchestral music.

For 15-year-old Clara Engen of Fluton, that moment came in the 6th grade while playing with the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies.

“It sounds kind of cheesy, or whatever,” the Southwest High School sophomore began, recalling the day she was overcome by the sheer size and power of the symphony’s sound. “It’s really awesome, actually.”

Engen and a friend, Repertory Orchestra cellist Hannah MacLeod, cheerfully tell of singing concertos as they walk down the crowded hallways at Southwest.

In MYS, the state’s best young musicians find a group of their peers who are equally serious about mastering their instruments and who have the talent to make it happen.

Take Engen for example: The violinist missed a seat in the Symphony Orchestra during August auditions, winning a spot in the Repertory Orchestra, instead. She was already looking forward to next summer when she could dedicate more time to practice and, hopefully, earn a place in the top level of MYS.

Michael Nelson, a 17-year-old Southwest senior, worked his way up through the MYS ranks to become a first chair violin in the Symphony Orchestra. Nelson said the group was far more challenging than any other he had played with.

“For the last four years, I was not one of the stronger players,” he said. “You’re always having to look up to somebody. You’re always having to work harder.”

Harnessing ambition

Laureano is also principal trumpet for the Minnesota Orchestra, and throughout the MYS season he brings in colleagues to work with his players. For the teenager musicians, many of whom aspire to become professionals, the experience is “a little like being a bat boy for the Minnesota Twins,” he said.

“The kids absolutely love any reference that I make to something that happened on the job,” he added. “It makes the idea of music as a profession much, much more real for them.”

They are ambitious, for sure, and Laureano knows how to harness that energy.

“The biggest that I can give to them is that they sound like a nice, little youth orchestra,” he said. “That just makes them mad.”

In reality, members of the Symphony Orchestra are tackling compositions that would be found on a college orchestra program.

Last year, they played Igor Stravinski’s “Rite of Spring,” a notoriously challenging and complex piece. The performance was, by several accounts, marvelous.

Later this season, Laureano will lead the Symphony Orchestra into new territory when they tackle Dimitri Shostakovitch’s Ninth Symphony. It will be the first time in the organization’s history that they play an entire symphony.

“The piece is just hard as hell,” Laureano said admiringly.

This season’s group of players got their first whiff of what was in store for them during their annual retreat to Lake Pepin in October. And they liked it.

Said Laureano: “They were like a bunch of Cub Scouts outside a bakery.

Minnesota Youth Symphonies: four orchestras

• Symphony Orchestra, a “collegiate level” orchestra conducted by
co-Artistic Director Manny Laureano.

• Repertory Orchestra for advanced players conducted by
co-Artistic Director Claudette Laureano.

• Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jim Bartsch.

• String Orchestra for intermediate string players, conducted by Pat Kelly.

(Hear audio clips of all four orchestras in performance at:

Notable MYS alumni

From the Cleveland Orchestra to the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester, England, there are at least a dozen Minnesota Youth Symphonies alumni currently playing in professional orchestras, MYS Executive Director Vicki Krueger said. Here are a few MYS alumni playing professionally in Minnesota:

• Ben Ullery, viola, Minnesota Orchestra.

• Bernhard Scully, principal horn, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

• Paul Straka, horn, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Go see it

Minnesota Youth Symphonies fall concert with guest Peter Ostroushko is 6:30 p.m. Nov. 16 at Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall. Tickets are $11–$20 for adults. To order, call 371-5642 or order online.