Sean O’Boyle’s most-recent work, premiered at the El Sistema Lehigh Valley (ESLV) concert Feb. 24 in Allentown’s Miller Symphony Hall, was demanding in its need to maintain balance.
The premiered piece, The Day of the Cello, had to be refined enough to challenge accomplished cellist Jesús Morales, the event’s guest artist, yet on the playing level of the concert’s featured musicians, Allentown elementary school student musicians who comprise ESLV. Moravian’s Debra Torok, artist-lecturer in piano, also accompanied the piece.
“Those two worlds are very far apart,” explained O’Boyle, artist-lecturer in composition at Moravian College. “It was a great thrill and a challenge to put together a piece that was meaningful for the students, but also a showpiece for the cellist.”
This week’s collaboration between Morales and the ESLV can be traced back to an idea brought forward by Hilde Binford, chair of the College’s Department of Music, according to O’Boyle. Once Morales’ performance with the Moravian College Community Orchestra was arranged for a Feb. 23 concert, Binford then approached O’Boyle about writing a piece for the international-standard concert cellist to perform with the ESLV. This is the third collaboration between the College’s Department of Music and ESLV, but the first collaboration providing an opportunity for the ESLV students to perform on the same stage with guest artists.
O’Boyle enthusiastically accepted the invitation to work with ELSV, calling El Sistema “the modern great program, for young people, on this planet.” He then detailed the program’s humble beginnings in Venezuela by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu in the mid-1970s. Today, El Sistema leads more than 125 youth orchestras and instrumental training programs, with nearly 500,000 youth participants.
“This program has been absolutely fantastic,” O’Boyle said. “Years ago, Abreu decided that children needed to play music to help them get out of the drugs, despair and violence of the country, and that’s what this program has done.”
It is wonderful to have a program like this in the Lehigh Valley, where we are putting orchestral instruments in hands of young students.”
The El Sistema program has broadened its reach around the world, including in the United States. In recent years, more than 50 El Sistema-based programs have come into existence in America, including ELSV, made possible through the Allentown Symphony Association’s collaboration with the Allentown School District. Steven Liu serves as ELSV’s program director and helps educate 85 students at Roosevelt Elementary School in East Allentown.
According to O’Boyle, The Day of the Cello was well received by both Morales and the elementary students. The young musicians’ enthusiasm has been especially inviting, he added.
“They seemed to really love it in rehearsal,” O’Boyle said. “I think they enjoyed the fact that they know this piece was specifically written for them, and they were the first people anywhere to perform it.”
O’Boyle says The Day of the Cello was written in a “fairly traditional classical style, with a few twists.” He added, “I tried to make it pretty joyous.”
He wrote the piece to test the ELSV musicians, but noted after six or seven weeks of rehearsal, “They could really play it now.” “There was no use in giving them something they could play immediately,” O’Boyle reasoned. “There would be no challenge, so why not challenge them!”
The ESLV concert, which was free and open to the public, also included the Allen High School Double Quartet, and the ASD Junior Strings orchestra. The event was made possible by a grant from the Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour.
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