Much more than just learning an instrument

Much more than just learning an instrument

Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic, will conduct the Thurnauer orchestra on Wednesday, Feb. 9, with concertmaster Glenn Dicterow performing the “Theme from ‘Schindler’s List.'” Chris Lee

When the Thurnauer Music School’s symphony orchestra tunes up on Feb. 9 for its annual benefit concert, its musicians will be guided by one of the greatest conductors in the world, says Dorothy Kaplan Roffman, founding director of the school.

But while delighted that Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic, will conduct the Thurnauer orchestra at the event, Roffman is not surprised.

“My understanding of Mr. Gilbert is that he has a great sense of promoting music and the love of music to the community at large,” said Roffman. “That’s also the mission of a community music school. By allowing anyone who wants to come to learn about music, we’re creating the audience of the future.”

Director of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades Thurnauer School of Music since 1984, Roffman added that Gilbert – together with other musicians from the Philharmonic – is making “an extraordinarily generous gesture. They have taken an evening to give us a gift.”

Appropriately named “The Gift of Music,” the benefit, established in 1990 by Drs. Alan and Joan Handler and to be held this year at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, will feature performances by several Philharmonic members, including concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and principal associate concertmaster Sheryl Staples.

According to Roffman, Staples, a Thurnauer parent and Haworth resident, played a major role in bringing the concert about.

“With one exception, all of the [Philharmonic] musicians invited to the concert are Bergen County residents,” said Staples. “It’s a nice connection…. I thought that they would feel good about supporting our fine resident music school.”

Staples’ own connection to the Thurnauer began four years ago, when her then 6-year-old son Michael announced that he wanted to play the violin, like his mother.

“I was surprised because my husband is a percussionist,” said Staples, who has been with the Philharmonic for 13 seasons. “We assumed he would go for drums.”

After sitting in on Michael’s lessons with Roffman for a year, Staples’ daughter Laura, then 5, said she wanted to play the violin as well.

“Whoever I spoke to,” said Staples, “colleagues as well as people who know about music in the area, kept directing me to the JCC Thurnauer School of Music and specifically toward Dorothy. The school isn’t an ordinary place where kids just study music. It’s a commitment for families, much more than just taking private lessons.”

The reason her children are still playing their violins today, she said, is that they were studying at Thurnauer rather than simply taking one lesson a week with someone in the neighborhood. She described the school as a “musical community where you develop friendships with other students.”

Learning to play the violin is hard, she said, “and we’ve all had our dark moments.” But her children take a variety of other classes at Thurnauer that are both educational and fun.

“One of the things that has gotten us through tough times has been looking forward to the group class,” Staples said. “They make it so much fun for them.” She reeled off the classes her children attend, including music and movement as well as Dalcroze sessions emphasizing rhythm.

“They think they’re playing,” she said. “The teachers are very creative and wonderful. My kids have loved it.”

Calling Roffman “the driving force behind the school,” Staples said the director’s philosophy is that students should become part of a community of music. Students attend classes several times a week both to play music and to listen to it.

Another feature of the school is regular recitals, she said. Students can sign up to play for an audience on a regular basis “so there’s a constant opportunity for them to try out whatever piece they’re working on. Some play often, some don’t,” she said. “They work on their pieces, and when they’re ready to try them out, this is a way for them to get on stage in an auditorium, with lights dimmed and everybody clapping.”

“There’s a different feeling getting up on stage with and playing for an audience,” she said. “It’s an important part of the development of a musician, not just to practice but to be able to stand up and give the gift of music to other people. Music is meant to be shared.”

Staples said she and Roffman had been discussing the idea of approaching Philharmonic musicians for a while, since the benefit concert generally features musicians of some renown.

The event, held to raise funds for scholarships – nearly 20 percent of Thurnauer students are on on partial or full scholarships – includes not only the evening concert, for which artists donate their services. It also includes an afternoon workshop offering students what Roffman called “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for music students to interact with them and be inspired by their artistry.”

Former presenters have included noted classical and jazz musicians, including jazz bassist Rufus Reid, violinists Joshua Bell and Gil Shaham, and the Wynton Marsalis Septet.

This year’s concert will include several parts, said Staples. After brief performances by the school’s violin groups and chorus, she and some of her Philharmonic colleagues will perform a program of chamber music, including works by Beethoven, Andres, and Mendelssohn.

Gilbert, whom Staples described as “a fine violinist and violist,” will play in the Mendelssohn Octet. Dicterow will play solo violin in a special performance of the “Theme from ‘Schindler’s List.'”

Staples said that with the exception of Dicterow and Gilbert, her fellow musicians – Sharon Yamada, violin; Yulia Ziskel, violin; Rebbeca Young, associate principal viola; Eric Bartlett, cello; Maria Kitsopoulos, cello; Judith LeClair, principal bassoon; Nancy Allen, principal harp; and Jonathan Feldman, piano – all live in Bergen County, and some have children who study at the Thurnauer school.

“Musicians are very charitable at heart and realize how important it is to support young people in their endeavors into music while supporting an institution like Thurnauer,” she said, adding that most of the Philharmonic members become involved “in various different benefits and charitable ways to offer their talent and time.”

Following the chamber music, “The Thurnauer symphony orchestra will come out and Alan [Gilbert] will conduct them in three works,” said Staples. “Some of us will sit side by side with the students” during this part of the performance.

For their part, the students have been preparing their pieces since the beginning of the school year, she said, noting that during a rehearsal before the performance, the Philharmonic music director will “put his finishing touches” on the music.

The Thurnauer orchestra, she said, includes the most advanced students in the school, both adults and children.

Her own children will participate in the opening presentation by the school’s violin groups, where “every violinist in the school who can participate will do so. There’s a lot of excitement in the air,” she said. “To bring in a conductor of [Gilbert’s] stature is the experience of a lifetime for young musicians.”

Staples said that as a musician herself, she’s learned a great deal from every conductor she’s ever worked with, whether in Cleveland or New York, and whether Alan Gilbert, Riccardo Muti, or Christoph von Dohnányi.

“As musicians, we gain from all of them,” she said. “For young people to have the opportunity to work with someone like Alan Gilbert, so experienced and such a mature musician, that will rub off on them…. He’ll talk to them and explain things in a way they haven’t heard before.”

“I think it will be incredibly inspiring,” said Roffman. “They’ll be making music with the best musicians in the country and one of the greatest conductors in the world. I cannot imagine that it will not be a high moment in their lives – whether they become musicians in the future or not is irrelevant. It’s something they will remember.”

While Gift of Music concerts are generally held at the JCC’s Taub auditorium, which seats about 600 people, BergenPAC holds twice that number.

“We usually get an audience of about 600,”said Roffman, “depending on how well-known the artist is. By the time it happens, there’s a ‘buzz’ about it.” She hopes to fill most of the seats in this year’s larger venue.

A full rehearsal will take place from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. the day of the performance, “and there will be an opportunity for the kids to ask [Gilbert] questions and interact with him in a personal way,” Rothman said. “They’re rehearsing all the time. We often say about music that once it’s polished, that’s when you can begin to learn the piece. When you no longer have real difficulties, you can begin to think about interpretation and what you want to do with the piece to make it more beautiful for the audience.”

The event will begin with a performance of the school chorus, now in its second year.

“We’ve just become an affiliate of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City,” said Roffman. “It’s an amazing group.”

Led by founder and artistic director Francisco J. Núñez, the performance-based YPC has provided the Thurnauer with a choral director to lead its four sections, two in Englewood public schools and two at the music school itself.

The chorus, organized by age groups, is “open to anybody,” said Roffman, “and children can come to the school just for the chorus.” While there is a fee to participate, “there are always scholarships,” she said.

“It is our dream to expand the success of the YPC model to young people in other cities to demonstrate the often untapped capabilities of children of all backgrounds,” wrote Núñez when the arrangement was announced.

“What’s most important is to bring the love of music to as many people as possible,” said Roffman. “We started in 1984 with 30 students, now we’re in the mid-400s.”

Her program, she said, strives to bring music to children at a variety of levels, “theory and ear training, group situations, instruments, and then other optional things. It’s modeled after a pre-college conservatory program. The difference is that it’s open to everyone. It’s an extremely important part of the mission of a community music school to provide opportunities for all children who want to learn.”

“We don’t have auditions,” she added. “Our main interest is to inspire, encourage, and support children who want to learn about music.”

Chairing the school’s concert committee are parents Karen and Michael Neus and Amy and Richard Machado.

“We are thrilled and honored to be part of this benefit concert,” said Karen Neus. “Through the vision of Dorothy Roffman and Sandra Gold,” the community activist who prompted the formation of the school, “children can receive a world-class music education on this side of the Hudson River.” (See related story.)

Neus praised the environment of the school as “one where playing music is a way of being with and communicating with people, where children see their peers and their elders engaged daily in learning and developing as musicians. There’s no better feeling than walking the halls and hearing music pouring out of five different practice rooms at once.”

Thurnauer School of Music flute group Courtesy Thurnauer Music School
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