At 100 years old, the Portland Youth Philharmonic is the country’s oldest youth orchestra, with a rich and storied history. In the early 1920s a young classically trained violinist and teacher, Mary V. Dodge, conceived of what would become the Portland Junior Symphony. It formed in earnest after she convinced a renowned Russian conductor to take on the orchestra composed of students that she was teaching in her attic. The Oregon Historical Society is opening an exhibit on the PYP next month, which will chronicle its birth and achievements over the last century. Joining us are Musical Director David Hattner, PYP principal flutist Macy Gong and former PYP musician Tim McCarthy, who now plays with the National Symphony Orchestra.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. At 100 years old, The Portland Youth Philharmonic (PYP) is the oldest youth orchestra in the country. In the early 1920s, Mary V. Dodge, a young classically trained violinist and teacher, conceived of what would become the Portland Junior Symphony. It formed in earnest after she convinced a renowned Russian conductor to take on the students she was teaching in her attic. The Oregon Historical Society is opening an exhibit on the PYP next month. Joining us now to talk about the group’s 100 years are Musical Director David Hattner, Principal Flutist Macy Gong, who is a senior at the Oregon Episcopal School, and former PYP Trumpeter Tim McCarthy who now plays with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC. Welcome to all three of you.
David Hattner: Great to be here.
Miller: So David, I mentioned the short version of this august history in the intro just now. But can you tell us more about the founding of the Portland Youth Philharmonic? Who was Mary V. Dodge?
Hattner: Mary Dodge was really an orphan who learned to play the violin in an orphanage and she married a man who moved her to Harney County around 1910. And having very little else to do with being in a really very primitive environment, she managed to get a bunch of string instruments sent to Burns and she taught the local children to play. She raised them to such a level that the local businessmen, mostly ranchers, decided to send them on a little tour of Oregon. So they came to Salem and they came to Portland and these young children played and were embraced by the city and written about. And when she herself moved back to Portland, she became a teacher at the Irvington School, started a strings program there, and had private students. Gradually this orchestra, “advanced orchestra” I think she called it, began to rehearse at her house. And she dreamed that there should be a symphony orchestra of young people, something that at least in this part of the country, no one had ever heard of.
But there needed to be a conductor to do it. At the time, of course, women were not conductors. They weren’t even playing string instruments in symphony orchestras for the most part. And into town came a Russian immigrant named Jacques Gershkovitch. Exactly how he got to Portland, we’re not sure. We know that he came to San Francisco as a refugee from Tokyo, where there had been a terrible earthquake in 1923. And despite his very limited English, she convinced him to hear this orchestra in her attic. And he agreed that he would take on the project of forming a symphony orchestra, which he did. He was the conductor until 1953.
Miller: A long time. We’ll get to the question of tenure in just a second. But let’s listen to an early recording, because you share with us some wonderful things, including some radio broadcasts. This is an introduction to a PYP concert that was broadcast on November 21st, 1936:
Radio broadcast announcer [recording]: The Junior Symphony Orchestra of Portland, Oregon, an organization of more than 100 junior artists whose ranges in age are from seven to 20 years, in concert under the direction of Jacques Gershkovitch, internationally known conductor. Under the capable direction of Mr. Gershkovitch, the Portland Junior Symphony has won an enviable reputation, extending far beyond the boundaries of its city and state and even beyond the borders of the nation. And here in its home city of Portland, the great Civic Auditorium has seen capacity crowds assembled to hear this truly talented group of youngsters.
Miller: What have you heard about Jacques Gershkovitch?
Hattner: I had the opportunity to talk to quite a few alumni who worked with him. He was an extraordinary musician and technician as a conductor first of all. He had been trained at the Imperial Conservatory of Saint Petersburg, in other words, before the Revolution. And he never developed a functional command of the English language, but he had the most forceful personality. Everyone felt compelled to do their best.
Miller: This was the era where conductors were very, very demanding, I imagine?
Hattner: Well, that hasn’t necessarily changed so much.
Miller: I just mean, harsh in the way they were demanding?
Hattner: Yes, he had a temper that was titanic in nature. And storms came rather furiously. But within a few seconds it was, as far as he was concerned, as if it never happened. It would pass. But yes, he would step off the podium and walk right up to someone and call them, you know, “terrible boy,” with the few words that he had. And then he would go back and continue working. Sometimes he could be extraordinarily patient. But listening to the few recordings we have, he was a miracle worker in what he was able to do in that era with those young people. To raise them to such a standard that the national radio broadcasts were willing to put the orchestra on the air regularly for decades is extraordinary.
Miller: Let’s have a listen to one of the performances that he conducted that was recorded. This is Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Festival Overture,” performed on April 21st, 1951.
[Recording plays: Orchestra music]
Miller: Macy Gong, I mentioned that you are the principal flutist now for the Portland Youth Philharmonic. You’ve been with the group in one of the ensembles for six years now, is that right?
Macy Gong: So this is my fifth year in the Philharmonic orchestra. And before that, I spent one year each in the Wind Ensemble in the Conservatory orchestra.
Miller: So seven years total. Do you remember the first time you played with the full Portland Youth Philharmonic orchestra, which I gather to be the most senior ensemble?
Gong: Yeah. The first time I played with them was probably during our summer social at the start of that season and we were rehearsing the Amy Beach symphony. I remember just being really impressed by all the musicians around me because I was still in middle school at the time. Everyone around me was in high school and they had been in the orchestra for a long time. So I felt a little intimidated but also I just felt really honored to be able to play with them.
Miller: When did you start playing a musical instrument?
Gong: I started playing the flute when I was five years old.
Miller: Why the flute?
Gong: Honestly, I didn’t make that choice. My parents just placed it into my hands and were like, “OK, you’re gonna take lessons now.” But I’m really glad that it was the flute because I really enjoy playing it. And I think it’s the instrument that was meant for me.
Miller: How do you figure that out? I mean, as you said, you didn’t choose it. It was chosen for you. But it seems like you’re saying you feel like your parents made the right choice. Why?
Gong: Yeah. I feel like flute is not as widely played as a lot of other instruments, like string instruments. So it kind of [offers] more opportunities for me to shine and not have to live under the stress of competing with other people. Like with string instruments, there’s just so much competition and people are playing at such high levels that it can get hard to fully enjoy playing the instrument. But I think flute has a really good balance of a lot of people who are very skilled and talented in it, but also not overly competitive or aggressive. I think the flute community is really tightly knit and I have a lot of flute friends from just all across the country.
Miller: How have you met them?
Gong: I’ve done a couple of summer programs across the country. So in 2020, I was a part of the National Youth Orchestra and that was online. So I had to make a lot of connections with people from all across the country over Zoom, which was kind of hard at first. But I think I still built a lot of deep connections. And then the summer after sophomore year, I attended the Boston University Tanglewood Institute and I did the flute workshop there. And that was in person. And that was just a really, really great experience. I got to meet around 12 other flutists from everywhere, I guess. And we got really close. We learned a lot from each other. And we’re still in contact.
Miller: That’s a famous annual summer festival in Western Massachusetts, in a beautiful place with a lot of great musicians from around the world, including young ones, as you’re describing.
Tim McCarthy, what about you? How did you become a trumpeter?
Tim McCarthy: Well, I started on piano, I guess when I was six years old, which was really helpful because I learned how to read music and developed a really good ear for music and being able to play things by ear. And then I remember in fifth grade in Vancouver Public Schools, we did a trimester of weekly music class on clarinet, on violin and on trumpet. So we got to try one instrument from each group and I liked the trumpet the most.
But my uncle was also a professional trumpet player. He played in the Air Force Academy jazz band, the Falconaires. So he was always an influence on me. And we actually found an old home video from when I was probably three years old. The Air Force Band was on tour, and we were visiting my uncle at his hotel. So I’m being, you know, a crazy high energy three year old running around the hotel room. And he pulls his trumpet out and starts playing, “Oh When the Saints” and I just froze and was just mesmerized by the trumpet. So it might be more deep rooted to my childhood. But I remember in fifth grade, deciding that, for band in sixth grade, I would play trumpet.
Miller: What about the switch to classical music? I mean, was that a part of your childhood?
McCarthy: No, I really didn’t grow up listening to much music at all, of any genre, especially not classical. And so I just played trumpet in my public school band program. My first experience with playing in an orchestra was [when] I did a summer festival similar to the ones that Macy did. I did a festival called the Lutheran Summer Music Academy out in Minnesota. And that was the first time I was ever put in an orchestra.
Up until that point I thought orchestra was strings only, because the way they do it in middle school band is all the winds and brass and percussion instruments. An orchestra is just a string orchestra. So I just didn’t even know that there could be trumpets in an orchestra or what a symphonic orchestra was.
It was extremely life changing because we played Tchaikovsky’s “Fifth Symphony” and Verdi Nabucco “Overture,” both of which were just incredible pieces of music. And I had never heard that kind of music played by that ensemble before. And I just fell in love. That was after my sophomore year of high school and that was when I knew that I wanted to play in a symphony orchestra. It just blew me away. The “Fifth Symphony” of Tchaikovsky is just some of the most beautiful repertoire that we have.
Miller: So you called it life changing and it doesn’t seem like that was an exaggeration. You were a young boy, you experienced that, and it sort of turned into your life?
McCarthy: Yeah. I mean, it really was because I decided in middle school that I wanted to play trumpet professionally. But I didn’t really understand what that meant or what different kinds of opportunities there were. And so when I came across the symphony orchestra playing this great romantic era, Russian rep, it was just like, “Oh, wow, this specifically is what I want to play for the rest of my life.” And I’ve been very lucky to get to continue doing that so far.
Miller: What was your experience like with Portland Youth Philharmonic?
McCarthy: I mean I had a great experience with PYP, since I didn’t even know what an orchestra was until I went to that summer festival which would have been, I guess, 2008 after my sophomore year. So my first experience with the orchestra, I was like, “Oh, wow! I want to be able to do this all year.” Because it was a month-long summer festival, I was like, “I need to find somewhere that I can play an orchestra back home,” and did some research and found the PYP organization.
So I signed up as soon as I could for auditions. Unfortunately, I had missed the cut off for the Philharmonic auditions but was able to audition and join PYWE, which is the Youth Wind Ensemble. I played some awesome rep with the wind ensemble as well and then was able to join the Philharmonic my senior year of high school.
Miller: David, you arrived here in 2008. Why did you want to be at the helm of a youth orchestra like this?
Hattner: That’s how I grew up. I went to a summer camp at a place called Interlochen. Many people have heard of it in Northern Michigan, not so far from where I grew up in Ohio. And I also attended it for my last three years of high school.
Miller: And what were you playing?
Hattner: I was a clarinetist and still am. I had a similar experience to a lot of people, in that I was taken by the art form trying to understand my way around the craft. I majored in clarinet in college and became a professional clarinetist, living in New York City. At some point, conducting came along and I studied at the Aspen Academy for a couple of summers in the mid-2000s. And I needed to find a job which is not so easy to do. I started very late as a conductor. Most people are starting in their early twenties. And I was already in my mid and becoming late thirties. And I always knew I wanted to work with the youth orchestra.
But the way it worked, I was just applying to every job there was and flying here to audition, flying there, doing this concert. And one of the things I was doing at the time was playing first clarinet in the Cascade Festival of Music, which was up in Bend. And Murry Sidlin, one of my Aspen teachers, was the conductor. And in 2007, I had already applied for the position and I was asking my colleagues in the orchestra about what PYP was. “Oh, you have to get that. That’s a great opportunity. What an orchestra they are. They are really, really good. You’ll be very impressed.” And so when I came to audition, I conducted them and I was very impressed, as this is an extremely impressive organization. And it didn’t take me long to say yes when they offered me the position.
The opportunity to become a music director where you can write your own programs, do any music you want, and also the character of the members of the orchestra, even amongst youth orchestra musicians, seemed uniquely high. The idealism that the musicians bring to their work is extraordinary. The organization was founded with extraordinary ideals and ambition and that has changed so little. It’s remarkable how similar, I think people would find a rehearsal of PYP, to ones from the old days, when conductors were maybe a little more tyrannical even than I am.
Miller: But as you said, and I appreciated your correction when I said they were demanding. Then you’re saying you are demanding now, you just probably hopefully don’t say “You are terrible” to the musicians. But what are you trying to get out of your musicians? What’s the goal?
Hattner: This has evolved in my thinking. But the goal is to develop their full intellectual potential. I now describe PYP, everyone knows it’s an orchestra, everyone knows it’s a very good orchestra. I think it’s the best college preparatory program that we have in this area. And I don’t mean for music college. I mean for regular intellectual academic study. Because as I see the musicians progress through the different levels of our program, the different ensembles, I see their capacity for deep focus and concentration develop to a level that few others outside of music can experience. And they have to do it as a team. In order for a 40-plus minute symphony to function, everyone has to have some of the same thought process throughout this very long course of time.
Even in ancient times, 40 minutes was a long time for any person to concentrate.
But we have short attention spans now. So this is the antidote to that. So I really feel that being demanding about every detail of every moment of the music is really an analog for what’s going to bring them success when they need to do a four year degree in something that’s very demanding, which most of our musicians are going to be doing. Very few of them will pursue music the way Tim has. If they choose to, this is probably the best place for them to be. But it’s really the best place for anyone who wants to go to college to study.
Miller: Macy, you brought your flute with you, which I’m very grateful for. Do you mind playing us something?
Gong: Of course.
Miller: What is it?
Gong: I’ll be playing “Syrinx” by Debussy.
[Flute solo plays]
Miller: Thank you. So you heard your music director, your conductor, David Hattner talking about what he wants from his musicians and what he thinks they get from being a part of PYP. What do you think you’ve gotten from these many years with the different ensembles?
Gong: Yeah, I agree with Mr. Hattner that this is just really good college prep and just preparatory for the future and what’s to come. Because I think that orchestra takes a really good mixture of individual preparation and also collaboration to be successful. So we’re all held very accountable for our own parts and preparing our parts for each week’s rehearsal. But then coming to rehearsal, it transitions from an individual standpoint to more as listening to other people and figuring out how your part goes along with everyone else.
So I think it is very demanding and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on my own part. But then coming to rehearsal and playing with others is both rewarding and also challenging. But I always like hearing the progression as rehearsals go on, during a concert cycle. And the final product is always something I’m really proud of. And it’s always fun to see how far we come from the very first rehearsal of the season with a full new orchestra with different members and members who have left.
Miller: Tim McCarthy, I understand that you’ve come back to play in the PYP’s concert at Christmas. What’s that like?
McCarthy: Yeah, it’s a really cool tradition that I don’t know how long PYP has been doing. But the day after Christmas, they have a concert that features an alumni orchestra, so a full symphony orchestra made up of PYP alumni who come home over Christmas to visit family, visit friends. And we get together and rehearse and perform a short overture or something at the beginning of the program. And then it features each of the PYP ensembles, also, for short programs, like maybe 10 to 20 minutes with each ensemble. So you get to kind of hear where the organization is at, every year. And you get to see friends from when you were in PYP, meet new people who were other PYP alums either from before or after your time there. And so it’s always just a really fun tradition.
And it’s great to get to come back and just hear how great the orchestra is sounding. I’m always blown away by the string section of PYP. I mean, even from the young strings ensemble, it just is mind blowing how high a level they’re performing at, at such a young age. I think I’ve only missed one concert at Christmas since I graduated high school in 2010 I’m pretty sure. It’s really great. I try to come home to see my family and then I also get to perform and see Mr. Hattner and see some of the other musicians, oftentimes people from when I was in PYP back in high school.
Miller: We’re gonna go out with one more recording in just a second. It’s one that you were a part of just five months ago in May. The first time I’ve been told that the Portland Youth Philharmonic played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This was with the Portland Symphonic Choir, which seems just like a huge mountain of sound. What was it like to be in the middle of that creation?
Gong: That was just a really incredible experience. I’d never played a symphony that involved anything other than just like your usual instruments. And we didn’t actually rehearse with the choir until a few weeks before the performance. So the first time they came and they started singing, I was surprised. I stopped playing. I didn’t know that they were supposed to be there. I didn’t know there was another part to it. And on stage, it was a really fun experience hearing the choir above and behind us and then also having the soloists in front. It was kind of cool to be collaborating with them, I guess, not just like instruments but like voices and yeah, like you said, it was a mountain of sound. It was just really big and it was amazing.
[Recording plays: Orchestra music]
Miller: Macy Gong, Tim McCarthy and David Hattner, thanks very much.
Macy Gong is the principal flutist with the Portland Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. Tim McCarthy is a former trumpeter with PYP. He’s now playing with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. And David Hattner is a musical director of the Portland Youth Philharmonic.
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