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The Orchestra Returns To The Sagebrush To Celebrate 100 Years

The Portland Youth Philharmonic marks the hundredth anniversary of its precursor, the Sagebrush Orchestra,  this weekend.

It was the first group of its kind in the country. The group will travel more than 300 miles to Burns, for a special program honoring music educators.

As David Nogueras reports, it was there that music educator Mary Dodge first sowed the seeds for the youth orchestra amidst the sagebrush of the high desert.

Over it’s long history, the Portland Youth Philharmonic had a string of triumphs.  In the 1930’s the group gained national notice when its concerts were syndicated and rebroadcast on the radio around the country.

In the 1970s, the PYP had its first European tour.  Linda Neale, who splits her time between Portland and Burns, played violin with the group back in the 60’s and remembers when American composer Aaron Copeland guest conducted the group. 

Neale says her own history is deeply intertwined with the orchestra’s.

Linda Neale: “It’s really because of that Orchestra that I’m here today.”

Before Neale’s own days with PYP, her grandmother Ruth Saunders (Leupold) was a member.  She was there in 1924 when what was then called the Portland Junior Symphony Orchestra had it’s first concert.

Linda Neale: “In the very first concert my grandmother was the assistant Concert Master and my grandfather played the piano.  That’s how they met.”

Neale’s grandmother had met the orchestra’s founder, Mary Dodge, a half decade earlier when they both lived in Burns.

Dodge and her husband Mont moved to Harney Country because of Mont’s work as a surveyor.  Mary Dodge loved children, and music.  She found a way to work with both, by teaching violin to local kids in an engineers’ tent camp. 

Classical music training was hard to come by in the old West.  Dodge was nearly always working with beginners.  Still, says Neale, it wasn’t long before Dodge and her pupils were putting on concerts.

Linda Neale: “And the parents were just amazed that their children could play like that.  So some ranchers began to take notice and they took up a collection and this whole orchestra took a tour to Portland.”

The group went by the name “the Sagebrush Orchestra,”  and it was a hit. 

David Hattner has been PYP’s conductor since 2008.  He says even from the beginning the group focused on musicianship.

David Hattner: “Not only was it the first orchestra of it’s type, but from the first season that it existed it had as an aspiration performing at a truly professional level, where although the rehearsal process is strictly different from that of a professional orchestra, the end result is remarkably similar.”

Professional orchestras will often rehearse a piece for several hours that will be played for multiple performances. But Hattner says PYP will work on a piece for weeks and only play it once.  

He sees his role as both a conductor and educator.   He says experience in a youth orchestra can have a lasting impact. He says that was true for him.

David Hattner: “These are the experience that I remember much more intensely and in greater detail than say any of the concerts that I played as a professional five years ago.”

And even though all members of PYP are extremely accomplished as musicians, Hattner says only a handful will pursue music as a career. 

Andrea Moon has been with PYP for four years.  She’s been playing since she was 5 years old.  Even though she has no plans to major in music when she heads off to college next year, she says music has been an important part of her life.

Amanda Moon: “For some people it’s sports, some people it’s writing.  I think it’s music.  When I play, it’s kind of a outlet for me and at the same time it’s something that I enjoy incredibly. It just feels good.”

Linda Neale, whose parents met through the orchestra, has a similar relationship to music.  She still plays in a small chamber music ensemble in Burns.   For her, the story of Mary Dodge still continues to have relevance, even today.

Linda Neale: “I just think of the legacy.  You know this is an amazing thing.  It’s an amazing experience that she came to this little town in the middle of nowhere and did what she did and changed so many lives.  And it’s still changing lives.”

Saturday night in Burns, The Portland Youth Philharmonic will honor Mary Dodge and the history of the PYP with the music of two prominent American composers, Charles Ives and Howard Hanson.