By Joseph P. Griffith
You may not think of Yonkers as an especially musical place, but the city has a surprising musical heritage. It has long been known for the pop, jazz and hip-hop musicians who were born or lived there, but it also has a classical music history reaching back to at least 1962.
That was when the Yonkers Philharmonic Orchestra was founded by Pasquale A. Pistone, who had previously conducted the Yonkers Symphony Orchestra.
Over the next few decades, members of the Philharmonic and the Fine Arts Orchestral Society (FAOS), which sponsors it, collaborated in a special program with the Yonkers public schools to mentor students and encourage their study of music.
The most visible, and aural, manifestation of the orchestra’s efforts has been a yearly series of four concerts at Saunders Trades and Technical High School, and occasionally at other venues such as Untermyer Park and Gardens. They were led by Maestro Jerome Sala, the conductor and music director from 1972 until his death in 2001. He was succeeded by his student James Sadewhite, a Yonkers native and educator who led the orchestra until his death in 2013.
Now the baton has been passed to Tong Chen, who teaches conducting and runs the orchestra program at Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. She has won numerous awards and conducted orchestras around the world, including Denmark, France, Brazil and her native Shanghai, China.
Among her honors, Chen was a prize winner of the prestigious International Malko Conducting Competition. She was chosen by Kurt Masur as the recipient of the 2012 Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Scholarship in Leipzig, Germany, and she is the only female conductor to be a semi-finalist of the International Besançon Competition for Young Conductors in France.
She is currently in her second season as conductor of the Yonkers Phil, an experience she said has been “a wonderful treat. Since they started the search for a new music director, before I was selected, I found it a kind and inviting environment. Some of the members have played with the orchestra for many years, and I’ve found the music making very fulfilling.”
The current season has four concerts scheduled, all on Sundays at 3 p.m. at Saunders and all with free admission:
- A Beethoven Festival Concert on Nov. 6, part of a series dedicated to James Sadewhite and featuring piano soloist Morey Ritt. The works will be the Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 58 G Major, and the Symphony No. 4, Op. 60, B-flat Major.
- An Italian Gala Concert on Jan. 29, 2017. Arias and overtures featuring soloists Victor Starsky, tenor, and Jin-Xiang Jx Yu, soprano.
- French and German Romanticism on March 19. Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte; the Reinecke Flute Concerto; and Cesar Franck Symphony in D Minor. Soloist David Ordovsky, flute.
- A Young Artist Competition winners concert on May 7.
Chen said not all of the works have been selected but the programs have been chosen based on audience interest in the composers. For instance, a large segment of the orchestra’s audience base is of Italian heritage and interested in the music of Puccini and Rossini, who will probably be represented.
The cost of the Beethoven concert is being funded completely by a $15,000 grant from the Westchester Community Foundation, a philanthropic organization that is a division of the New York Community Trust. Other supporters include the city, Westchester County, the Thomas and Agnes Carvel Foundation, the Yonkers-East Yonkers Rotary, State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer.
The Concerto Competition was started 38 years ago by Dr. Kathleen A. Pistone Carucci, the widow of the orchestra’s founder and the founder of FAOS. The competition awards cash prizes in the categories of instrument, piano and voice. It is open to high school students who are residents of or study in the county. The auditions are scheduled for March 5 and the finals for March 8.
In 2016 50 to 60 students applied. They went through a series of auditions and performed works by Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Debussy at the winners’ concert. Five prizes totaling $2,800 were awarded.
“This is not a national competition,” said Chen. “These are young artists from the Yonkers area. The orchestra is from Yonkers and this is a way to give back to the community. It encourages the younger generation to continue loving classical music. Many have potential to become big stars.”
She said the level of the performers this year was so good that it was difficult to select the best. “To be honest we would take all of them,” she said. The first-place winner, 15-year-old David J. Sacks of Greenwich, Conn., performed the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3. “Musically and technically he really nailed that concerto.”
She said past competitions have produced some interesting stories. A friend of hers who is a violinist with the San Francisco Opera said another violinist who sits next to her turned out to have been a competition winner years earlier. “Many of them are out there playing professionally or teaching. It’s a very positive thing,” said Chen.
Marcia Klein, co-president of FAOS, credited Sadewhite with improving the organization and the orchestra’s quality. She said Chen has furthered that, reorganizing it and introducing programming themes.
“The musicians love working with her,” Klein said. “They think she’s wonderful.”
Chen led the season’s first rehearsal at Saunders on Sept. 13. The orchestra had last gathered for a July 4 program of Americana at Untermyer, and the players seemed not to have missed a beat as they rehearsed their Beethoven.
For the future, Chen plans to continue the Beethoven series, the four annual concerts and one in the summer, as well as two educational concerts in the Yonkers public schools. She would like to add one or two more, possibly a “Yonkers Pops” date.
The city has given the music world Steven Tyler, Ella Fitzgerald and Mary J. Blige, among many others. Perhaps the Yonkers Philharmonic will someday contribute a future Yo-Yo Ma.