Meeting the educational needs of talented young instrumentalists in a rural, sparsely populated state with few musical resources in the schools is a challenge. And it’s a matter of paramount concern to Jeffrey Domoto, now one year into his job as music director of the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association. The VYOA, based in the Burlington area of northern Vermont—the largest population center in a state that ranks 49th in the U.S., with about 620,000 residents—serves approximately 500 students up through high-school age, who are enrolled in three full symphonic ensembles ranked by experience and technical level (Vermont Youth Orchestra, Vermont Youth Philharmonia, and Vermont Youth Sinfonia) plus two groups for younger string players, a chamber wind ensemble, and two youth choruses.
Domoto arrived at the VYOA in February 2011, bringing a background that included staff conducting posts at New York City Opera and Minnesota Opera as well as extensive experience with young musicians at such places as the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra, Sewanee Music Festival, the Kinhaven School, and youth orchestras in China. At the VYOA he oversees the organization’s overall development, attends most of the instrumental auditions, and personally conducts the Youth Orchestra and Youth Sinfonia.
In a phone conversation that took place February 2, 2012, Domoto shared his thoughts on the VYOA’s mission, the challenges he faces as music director, and the experience his organization aims to provide for the region’s young musicians.
Chester Lane: What particularly attracted you to this job?
Jeffrey Domoto: The organization is really unique. We’re the only top-tier youth orchestra in the country that serves a population of only 200,000. Burlington itself is only about 40,000. The independent youth orchestras that are our peers are all in larger cities, with much more in the way of music education infrastructure. The Vermont Symphony Orchestra is a very fine professional orchestra, but it’s mostly non-resident musicians. The closest performance-oriented college or conservatory is more than two hours away. So the institutions that are a great resource for music education—for training young musicians at a high level—we don’t have here. We have to be much more strategic and active in figuring out how to do that.
Lane: So your challenge is to become the educational center for these young musicians.
Domoto: Yes. And we have a profile that’s much higher than you’ll see at some other youth orchestras. In most places the youth orchestra would have a budget one-tenth or one-twentieth as large as that of the city’s professional orchestra. Our budget of around $600,000 is about 40 percent of what the Vermont Symphony’s is. We’re a really well supported organization, and able to do some great things artistically. I’m interested in seeing what we can do in terms of building a really strong cultural identity for the students.
Lane: What is the VYOA’s geographical scope?
Domoto: We have students who travel perhaps 25 miles from across Lake Champlain in New York State. And we have a couple of students from New Hampshire. There’s a good sized contingent who are driving an hour and a half or two hours to rehearsals. We help families find each other so they can carpool—that’s definitely one of the challenges of being from a small rural state. But for the more serious students there’s no question that they’ll make this commitment. As for the younger students, we’re looking at how to better serve the ones further away, either by setting up programs ourselves or by partnering with local organizations to get some music activities started.
Lane: How do the challenges of conducting a youth orchestra differ from those of a professional orchestra?
Domoto: The critical thing is repertoire selection. You’re looking for that sweet spot—finding things that have the right level of technical challenge and also keep the right number of kids involved. I can’t program a symphony on each concert that only uses timpani in the percussion section. And the planning cycle is a challenge. I’m now doing a lot of planning for next season, but our auditions are in May and I’m not really sure yet what I’ve got. Will I have a harp or not? Another challenge is coming up with a comprehensive way to develop skill levels as the students move up through the organization, to the point where they’re ready to play fairly difficult standard repertoire and new music with our top orchestra.
Lane: An example of that “difficult standard repertoire,” I suppose, would be Franck’s D-Minor Symphony, which the Youth Orchestra performed on your January 27 concert.
Domoto: Yes. That concert opened with a Rossini overture. We also have a student soloist on most concerts, and this one featured our principal trombonist, Quinn Parker, who played the concerto by Launy Grondahl, written in 1924.
Lane: You’re a trombonist yourself. Is this one of the staples of that instrument’s very small concerto repertoire?
Domoto: Yes. There’s no path to immortality in writing a trombone concerto, but with that piece you don’t feel you’re making any compromises in terms of quality.
Lane: You have a very strong choral program, unusual for a youth orchestra organization. Which groups do the VYO Chorus and the Vermont Youth Concert Chorale perform with?
Domoto: Typically with either of the two top orchestras. This May the Chorus and Youth Orchestra will premiere a piece by Rob Paterson called A New Eaarth [commissioned by the VYOA as part of a Music Alive! residency funded by New Music USA and the League of American Orchestras]. It’s structured around the ideas and words of Bill McKibben, an environmental activist who teaches at Vermont’s Middlebury College and wrote the book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. It also uses narration, and McKibben will be doing that in the premiere.
Lane: How do you balance new music with standard works?
Domoto: What I’m really interested in—and we already have a strong tradition of this—is for the students to be in contact with the actual composers. So having had this residency with Rob Paterson over the past three seasons has been fantastic. We’ll be doing a lot more in coming years with reading music, both large-ensemble and chamber pieces.
“We’ve had kids who’ve gone on to Juilliard and Curtis, but for me the most important thing is that the kids who don’t choose to go into music come away with a strong love of it, and a desire to apply the experience of community and excellence they’ve had here
to whatever they choose to do.”
Lane: What big standard piece will your top orchestra be performing on its May concert?
Domoto: We’re doing the first four sections of Holst’s The Planets. Rob Paterson’s piece will be 20 to 25 minutes long, and I wanted to make sure we didn’t over-program so that we could do right by him. We’ll also do the first movement of the Elgar Cello Concerto with Liam John, another one of our students who’s graduating. Also, I’ve been teaching conducting to several of the students, and we’re doing Copland’s short work John Henry as an opportunity to give one of them a chance to conduct.
Lane: Do you have some idea about the next big piece you want to do?
Domoto: I want to do one big core-repertory symphony every year. And I’ll have to see what I get in terms of the number of kids who are ready to do concertos. We’ll also be preparing for a tour at the end of next season, so where we end up going will have some influence on what we play. We’re taking the VYO Chorus on tour with us, and we’ll want to choose an American choral work with orchestra as well as something from the region where we end up going. And I’m toying with doing an opera-centered concert this time next year. Hopefully some of my opera-singer colleagues can be induced to come up here to someplace cold—maybe a ski lodge will sweeten the deal.
Lane: Is your job entirely artistic, or are you active with fundraising and meeting community members?
Domoto: This first year I’ve had a lot to do on the non-artistic side. A big concern is do we have enough students to support the number of ensembles we have. The major thing for me the last few months and going forward is getting out into the schools and meeting the teachers and having a chance to work with and talk to their students.
Lane: You must have to do a balancing act between maintaining high standards at the top level and doing a lot of education at the lower levels.
Domoto: Yes, and for me conducting two orchestras on the same day is challenging. But with students at the intermediate level, mostly in middle school, I’m able to be pretty demanding. The music isn’t as difficult, but there are still plenty of challenges for them.
We’ve had kids who’ve gone on to Juilliard and Curtis. And that’s great, but for me the more important thing is that the kids who don’t choose to go into music come away with a strong love of music and desire to remain involved in and support musical activity—to apply the experience of community and excellence they’ve had here to whatever they choose to do. We think of ourselves as being drawn together by a common love of music to create this community where we can really develop not only as musicians but as great citizens and great leaders. That’s the greater gift of what the organization can do.
Lane: Did you yourself have a youth orchestra experience?
Domoto: I played in the Seattle Youth Symphony under Vilem Sokol, who passed away this past summer. I’ve been thinking about him a lot in the time since I came up here.
Lane: He was one of those real career youth-orchestra leaders. Do you think of yourself that way?
Domoto: I think it’s a possibility. I really see how we can continue to raise standards, help develop a stronger music education infrastructure in the schools and with private teachers. Can we get funding to send people out to do after-school programs? Can we get an El Sistema-type program going? The underserved community for us means not just poverty but also isolation. Vermont has places where there aren’t enough families close enough together to make group music activity work well. How do we come in and make that happen? I’m very excited about the possibilities.