Local Arts

There’s a new youth orchestra in town – 4, actually – because parents refused to lose this leader

When Ernest Pereira stopped conducting the Charlotte Symphony’s student orchestras this year, he didn’t expect the going-away present some parents would give him.

An orchestra. Four orchestras, actually.

The Charlotte Symphony announced in March that, after 30 years, Pereira would no longer lead its Youth Orchestra and Junior Youth Orchestra: President/CEO Mary Deissler said the CSO “wanted to take the youth orchestras in a different direction,” and that new resident conductor Christopher James Lees would take over. (Pereira continues to hold the non-rotating fourth chair of the Symphony’s first violin section.)

Within days, student musicians and parents fed Facebook outrage and began a petition to do something. “Something” turned out to be the Youth Orchestras of Charlotte, which will spotlight 200 student musicians in their YOC Family Concert Nov. 20 at Halton Theater.

Meanwhile, the Charlotte Symphony maintained its student orchestras, now called the Youth Orchestra and Youth Philharmonic. (The latter is a preparatory orchestra.) Lees oversees more than 100 young musicians — recruited through public and private schools and local teachers — and they’ll give a Belk Theater concert of Rossini, Bizet and Haydn Dec. 1. Lees offers a positive spin on the split: “We think the city is large enough that there can be lots of opportunities for high-quality music education.”

A few hardy students play in both youth orchestras, which rehearse on different nights.

The journey from protests to performances took YOC leaders less than eight months. They say they have roughly doubled the $25,000 in their savings account and embarked on a “friends and family challenge” to raise another $75,000 to $100,000. They’ve created not only the Youth Orchestra of Charlotte and a Preparatory Orchestra but also a Flute Choir and Sinfonia Strings, two groups the CSO didn’t offer. (Each will play at Halton.)

The woodwinds section of the Youth Orchestra of Charlotte practices in the chapel at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. Joshua Komer The Charlotte Observer

The YOC went to these extremes to keep Pereira, who estimates 80 percent of the players in his symphony youth orchestra followed him to his new job.

“We didn’t do this for Ernest but because of him,” says Jeanna Norris, whose daughter Anna plays in the string section of the YOC’s top group. “Like all parents, we were working to get what’s best for our kids.”

Anna, a South Mecklenburg High School senior, has played for Pereira for seven years. Her mom has been on the executive committee of the parents’ association — the one that backed CSO youth orchestras and now supports the YOC — for four years and been president for three. The biggest change, Jeanna Norris says, was printing new T-shirts for musicians to wear.

Rehearsals take place, as always, at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church on Park Road. The maestro, soft-spoken and pony-tailed at 60, remains a calm but firm presence on the podium. Repertoire continues to test young players, because Pereira believes “You set the bar high. It’s good for them to have goals, and the better players will lift the others.”

A native of South Africa, Pereira joined the CSO in 1985 en route to a doctorate from the University of Texas and began to conduct student musicians three years later. His DNA prepared him for the task: His grandfather was a schoolteacher, his grandmother taught piano, his father was an English professor, and his mother taught violin.

“I loved it right away,” he says. “Seeing young people develop a skill and a love for music that will stay with them, whether they play professionally or not – that has always been satisfying.

“The main thing I’ve learned over the years is patience. You have to bring everyone along, to go at the pace of whoever needs extra work. Sometimes I’ll talk to their (music teachers) about preparing them for difficult passages outside rehearsals. I program pieces that will sound good in concert but also challenge them to improve.”

The all-American program for Nov. 20 includes Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo,” with its tricky cowboy-inspired rhythms; two sections from Morton Gould’s “Symphonette No. 2”; Bernstein’s “Candide” overture; Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”; and the first movement of Barber’s taxing Violin Concerto, with concertmaster Caroline Smoak as soloist.

Percussionist Zach Cathcart, a 10thgrader at Hickory Ridge High School in Harrisburg, says Pereira “drives us forward: He wants us to play well but pushes us beyond our comfort levels. When I began, I was comfortable with (the basic meters of) 2/4 and 4/4. Then I started reading complicated mixed-meter music. By the time I played Saint-Saens’ ‘Bacchanal,’ I was shocked to see how far I had come.”

“He focuses on every section, because he knows that if the lower strings and brass are in tune, that will help the higher strings and woodwinds,” says home-schooled cellist Kristi Roller, who has played for him for four years. “He knows the sound he wants, and he speaks in ways students can understand in order to get it.”

Violinist Andrew DeWeese, who has played perhaps 15 concerts for Pereira over four years, believes the conductor’s drilling and attention to detail improves academic performance, too. “It helps your work ethic,” says DeWeese, a Charlotte Latin School junior. “You’re enjoying what you’re playing, and you become more disciplined.”

Pereira now conducts children of musicians he educated long ago. Some alums have gone on to conservatories, orchestra positions and teaching jobs; one played in the Chiara String Quartet, one in the “Saturday Night Live” band. Taylor Marino, whom he recalls fondly, will join the Charlotte Symphony this winter as principal clarinetist.

Cellist Christina Beekman, who played for Pereira for seven years, went to Carnegie Hall on the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra’s first trip in 2002. (The group went back in 2017.) Now she directs her own students to Pereira, not just because of musical training but for the behavior he instills:

“Opening up your ears to the world of sound around you, (so) another part of the brain is challenged. The tenacity to keep going, even if the group has left you behind. The integrity of knowing your part inside and out, so when it is your turn, you don’t let your orchestra down…. I want my students to have the same positive experience I had so many years ago, (which is why) I’m sending them to YOC.”

Now, in the first flush of expansion, YOC leadership has to develop a financial plan for long-term survival.

Norris wants to take the orchestra on the road as soon as possible: Parents helped underwrite the 2017 Carnegie trip and have the taste of that glory in their mouths. She wants to expand August’s three-day intensive YOC music camp, possibly to a five-day one like that held at Converse College in the old days. “We need broader financial support, so we have to reach out to a bigger universe,” she says.

Pereira says he enjoys more programming freedom, as long as he and orchestra manager Chris Rydel don’t go far over budget, and the understanding that he needn’t leave until he’s ready to pass the baton.

“It’s been great to see more involvement from the parents,” he says. “They’re not just dropping kids off for rehearsals or handing out lunches. They immediately organized, and they would not go gently into that good night.”

YOC Family Concert

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 20.

WHERE: Halton Theater, 1206 Elizabeth Ave.


DETAILS: youthorchestrasofcharlotte.org.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.