Youngstown Symphony in Concert with Audience

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Nothing improves one’s mood more than attending a concert of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra.

On a high note, audiences leave Powers Auditorium, the Ford Family Recital Hall, houses of worship in the Mahoning Valley and public elementary schools.

Children laugh, shout, clap and sing in joining the music during Young People’s concerts. On Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, their more reserved elders sit in polite attention before rising from their seats to accord prolonged ovations.

The exuberance and wit of its conductor and music director, Randall Craig Fleischer, and his wife, Heidi Joyce, the performances of its musicians and guest artists delight everyone.

People who stay away from the Youngstown Symphony because they think it plays only the works of dead white male composers – most of them European (how boring, how dull, yawn, they fear) – would be surprised to learn the musicians also play rap, rock ’n’ roll, blues, blue grass, country, folk, jazz, gospel and show tunes.

By the way, those dead white European composers “were the rock stars of their day,” Fleischer points out, every bit as popular, sometimes just as scandalous, as The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Who.

Fleischer loves music, all genres, and works to share that love. Hence his efforts to reach out to the community and leading concerts where “anything and everything I can think of we play. That’s why we do rock fusion. And African and world music.”

And country. On Nov. 7, yhe Youngstown Symphony performed Fleischer’s “Country Legends,” a collection of country songs he arranged. The musicians played to one of the largest pops audiences in Powers Auditorium.

Three years ago, says Patricia Syak, president and CEO of the Youngstown Symphony Society, she and Fleischer initiated the series of “Stained Glass Concerts” where the conductor and members of the orchestra perform Sunday afternoons in Mahoning Valley churches.

This year, the Youngstown Symphony began offering Sunday afternoon serenades in the DeYor Center for those uncomfortable traveling at night, Syak says.

Fleischer has appeared on the early morning local TV news shows early in concert weeks and on radio to inform viewers and listeners about that Saturday night’s concert and the excellence of the musicians.

He and Joyce have revamped the Young People’s Concerts, which the orchestra has given some six decades, and perform them in Valley schools as well as the DeYor Center.

At this year’s concerts, they led off the theme of counterpoint by “doing a little rap for them,” Joyce says. That put them in the mood.

Fleischer demonstrated “body percussion.”

“You just can’t ask 7-year-old kids to sit. They’re not going to want to,” he points out. “So you get them involved.”

And as Joyce emphasizes, “Nature intends us to experience music with our whole body.”

As the concertmaster, Rachel Stegeman, witnessed, “Heidi was so energetic and got them involved. They loved it. They went nuts. They literally went nuts.”

Stegeman adds, “Live music is where it’s at. It’s so different from a Beethoven symphony or Tchaikovsky serenade on YouTube.” She could be speaking about any genre and have included compact discs, iPods or the return of vinyl as well.

The ongoing challenge to the symphony society – any large city symphony organization for that matter, as Fleischer notes – is attracting audiences in numbers to sustain its operations.

The number of pops concerts given each season has fallen to three from four and classical concerts to three from five “for budgetary reasons. … It struggles,” Syak says of the symphony society. Fleischer uses the word “struggle” as well.

Of the Stained Glass concerts, he reports, “They’re a very big success. Not so much financially, because they’re free.” So are the Young People’s concerts.

As tools to recruit larger audiences, they seem to enjoy some measure of success.

“If they’ll just walk through that door the first time,” Fleischer says. “It’s just getting them in the door.”

Case in point: “We just had a board member who had been a pops subscriber for years,” the conductor relates. “He had never been to a classical concert, came to our season opener [“All Russian” featuring Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev], told me it was great, and said, ‘What have I been missing out on?’ This is great.”

Audiences at the pops concerts, while falling off, remain larger than for the Masterworks performances. “You see an older generation at the pops,” Syak says, but the number of young people – college and high school students – and middle-age people at the classical concerts is rising. “You see more young people with their parents,” she says. “And we’re seeing a record number attending” – reason for optimism.

Sales of single tickets are rising as the number of season subscriptions creeps downward, Syak says.

The symphony has a budget of $1.5 million, Syak says, more than half of which goes to the maintenance and upkeep of the DeYor Center. It houses Powers Auditorium, built as the Warner Theater nearly 85 years ago.

“We still are facing a financial challenge with this big old beautiful building that’s costly to run,” Fleischer says.

“So much infrastructure dates to 1931,” Syak, the symphony society CEO, explains. “We’ve had to upgrade the roof, electrical system and plumbing [over the years]. Our major issue is the HVAC [heating, ventilation, air conditioning] system. Youngstown Thermal rates have doubled since 2013, more than doubled in some cases. It’s a major concern” and the society board is exploring “ways to conserve energy or convert to other systems.”

In addition to ticket sales, the principal sources of funding are corporate sponsorships and underwriting of individual concerts, individual donations and grants from the Ohio Arts Council. Advertising in concert programs also helps.

The musicians who make up the orchestra are unusual, Fleischer observes, because many play in a nexus where orchestras in the region to some degree coordinate their schedules. This allows them to play dates in Wheeling, W.Va., Erie and Greenville, Pa., Akron, Canton and Warren, and some in Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

A classical musician in this region “can make a living, a comfortable living,” Fleischer says, whether he travels among the orchestras or is on the faculty at the Dana School of Music at Youngstown State University or other colleges in the region. Some are music directors at nearby high schools.

The desire to be a member of the Youngstown Symphony is intense as reflected by the number of artists who audition. Late last month and into this month, the orchestra held blind auditions for first clarinet, trumpet and some strings. Twenty-nine tried out for first clarinet, Fleischer said. He and the panel listened closely to each.

The music director is thrilled about the caliber of artists who play for him – “I love the musicians. They are responsive. They are talented. They want to grow. They want to learn” – and they return the compliment.

The concertmaster, Stegeman, who serves as the performers’ liaison, says, “I really enjoy working with the conductor. I like his energy.”

And Fleischer says he has learned how to conduct rehearsals better. “It’s 80% or even 90% playing,” he says, unlike some famous conductors who spent half their rehearsal time discussing or commenting on the scores. “I’m gabbing less and less and they’re playing more and more.

“Professional musicians are listening to – and evaluating themselves as they play,” he explains. “Ninety percent of what’s wrong the first time fixes itself the second time. … It’s not the same as a student orchestra. … We’re all listening to each other, constantly fixing it as it goes along. It’s this unspoken communication that’s so miraculous.”

The programs the Youngstown Symphony plays offer something for everyone who likes music. As for classical, Fleischer’s favorite composers are Tchaikovsky and Brahams but he is enthusiastic about John Adams and John Luther Adams (no relation). He hopes to introduce the latter’s “Become Ocean” next season or the 2017-18 season.

John Luther Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2014 as well as a Grammy for best contemporary classical composition. “Become Ocean,” commissioned by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, had its premiere June 20, 2013, in Seattle. The reviewer for the Seattle paper was not impressed by the 43-minute work while Alex Ross, who heard it 11 months later in Carnegie Hall, raved about it in The New Yorker. Ross compared it to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” writing, “It may be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history.”

Fleischer determines the programs the orchestra plays. “It’s entirely subjective. It’s my taste,” he says matter-of-factly. For the classical concerts, he knows the audiences want to hear the pieces, or at least the composers – such as Beethoven, Mozart and Bach – they’re most familiar with.

The musical director wants to stretch their horizons with contemporary composers in the New Romantic School, such as the Adamses, they’re unlikely to have heard. Fleischer likes them and wants his audiences to share in his discoveries.

“No one likes Tchaikovsky and Brahams more than I,”
he says. “So I’m going to continue to embrace great classical composers. But we’ve done some pretty darn innovative stuff, like Chris Brubeck’s [concerto,] ‘Time for Three.’ We’ve done some Native [American] fusion and some rock fusion things.“

When people find out, they call the DeYor box office. It’s the first step to getting them to “walk through that door for the first time.”

Pictured: Randall Craig Fleischer and his wife, Heidi Joyce, perform at a Young People’s concert.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.