A Symphony of Fun // The Strings Are the Things

By  Gail Cole

Backstage more than two-dozen classical musicians are playing a waiting game. A violist scoops up a soccer ball and heads outside to juggle it. A violinist reads, holding a book in one hand while dribbling a ball with the other. Another violinist and a cellist engage in a lively strings duel that would make the Devil down in Georgia proud.

The youngest two members of the ensemble take it all in, eyes wide. When Conductor Tigran Arakelyan arrives, the musicians, aged 7 to 18, put balls and books aside. The younger group, the Sinfonietta, files into the sanctuary of Grace Episcopal Church and under Arakelyan’s baton flawlessly performs pieces by Brahms, Del Borgo and Corelli.

Next up, the Senior Orchestra nails a complex program that includes works by Rossini and Mussorgsky. Meet the two-tiered Bainbridge Island Youth Orchestra (BIYO). The Sinfonietta is comprised of intermediate-skilled 7- to 13-year-olds while the Senior Orchestra is made up of advanced middle grade and high school students. They come from Bainbridge, Poulsbo, Indianola and other parts of Kitsap County.

Founded in 2001 by a group of local music teachers and parents, BIYO gives young string musicians the opportunity to play music in a symphonic environment. Before BIYO the only group music option for young people was school bands, which are composed solely of woodwind, brass and percussion players.

Katherine Davies, who has taught violin on the island for more than 20 years, maintains that a string player’s education cannot be complete without an orchestral experience. It builds a note reading skill different from what is gained in individual playing, she said, allowing the students to take on complex pieces like Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor.

Certainly, to play as part of an ensemble is very different from playing individually, with some musicians carrying the melody while others flesh out the harmony. Working under a conductor is also a different learning process than one-on-one lessons from a teacher.

The members of BIYO are violinists, violists and cellists (there is one harpist, too). They are also dancers, runners, swimmers, soccer players and robot builders. All in all, they’re a busy bunch, devoting hours each week to the study of their instrument on top of their schoolwork and other activities.

Arakelyan joined BIYO as music director in July 2015, and like his students he is busy. He is music director for the Federal Way Youth Orchestra and the Music Works Northwest Chamber Orchestra. He is also associate conductor of the Rainier Symphony and co-conductor of the University of Washington Campus Philharmonia Orchestra.

On top of all that, he is pursuing his doctorate in musical arts in orchestral conducting at UW. Arakelyan started conducting at the age of 22, and has worked with young musicians for his entire career. He has clearly found his calling. “They come prepared, and they always make progress,” he said.

He believes the classical music community has a duty to teach and inspire kids. “Kids are more open- minded and have fewer preconceived notions about classical music. They approach it with open arms.” The kids find Arakelyan both accessible and demanding. He expects them to practice, work hard and pay attention, and they rise to his expectations.

Why do the kids do it? Why put one more helping on their plate? Because it’s fun. Arlea Prater, who just turned 11, enjoys the new compositions they learn. Max Doane and Axel Edwards said it’s fun to play music with their friends every week. Josie Meier loves learning about the origins of the music, and Jacqueline Hall and Kalea Chu enjoy being part of an energetic, creative group. “We sometimes have random playing sessions on the ferry and have fun with it,” Chu said.

Last December, both the Sinfonietta and the Senior Orchestra performed a holiday concert at Pacific Place in Seattle. Later this season, the Sinfonietta will perform at several Bainbridge schools and the Senior Orchestra will share the stage with the Bainbridge Symphony Orchestra, working under BIYO’s former conductor, Wesley Schultz. Arakelyan also hopes one day to host a music festival here, on Bainbridge. BIYO will perform March 6 and May 1 at Grace Episcopal Church. Learn more about BIYO at biyo.us.