Spring orchestra concerts a swan song for two conductors
By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector
Friday, February 15, 2019
After nearly 20 years of helping hundreds of young musicians fine-tune their skills, conductors of two of eastern North Carolina's youth orchestras are ready to pass the baton.
Greg Hurley, conductor of the Eastern Junior Youth Orchestra, and Wendy Bissinger, conductor of the Eastern Preparatory Youth Orchestra, are set to take their final bows at a concert on Feb. 25. The orchestras hope to have two new conductors in place by the time auditions for next season begin in May.
“The younger generation, this next group, they've got to come up,” Bissinger said in an interview. “I think sometimes the best thing I can do is to back out.
“I think new blood is a good thing,” she said. “We've been doing this long enough.”
Eastern Youth Orchestra got its start in 1970 when Joanne and Charles Bath, along with Joann Moore, launched a community orchestra for children, with Charles Moore as the first conductor. John O'Brien, a faculty member in ECU's School of Music, has served as conductor since 1986.
Hurley, who joined O'Brien at the School of Music in 2001, helped to launch a junior youth string orchestra two years later. In 2005, a third group, the preparatory orchestra, was added for more novice musicians. Hurley and Bissinger are the only conductors to have led the junior and preparatory groups.
About 20 weeks a year, Eastern Youth Orchestras draw nearly 100 musicians, ages 7 to 18, to A.J. Fletcher Music Center to practice being part of one of the three ensembles. The program, which is designed to supplement orchestra instruction provided in schools, attracts participants not only from Greenville but also from communities in other parts of eastern North Carolina, including Kinston, New Bern, Wilson, Washington and Rocky Mount.
“When you tell people that in Greenville we have a youth orchestra of three different levels, they go, 'really?'” said Hurley, who has spent more than 25 years of his career working with youth orchestras,
Hurley, an associate professor of music education at ECU, spends Monday evenings rehearsing music with more than two dozen members of the junior youth orchestra, who are mostly middle schoolers.
“I just enjoy it,” he said. “It's different from what I do here at the university.”
Hurley's university students are sometimes guests at rehearsals, where they can observe the veteran educator's techniques for helping young musicians perform to their potential.
Bissinger, a cellist and Suzuki cello teacher, led the strings program at Arendell Parrott Academy before turning her attention to younger performers.
“I love the age group,” she said of the preparatory orchestra members, who are mostly elementary students, though orchestra members are selected based on ability rather than age.
“I taught for a while at the college level and I said, 'This is not where it's at for me; I want to start the little ones,’” she said. “I want to have fun. I want to be able to communicate on their level so that when they get to the college level, they're doing it right.”
ECU School of Music faculty member Amy Carr-Richardson, who chairs the Eastern Youth Orchestras' board of directors, said the preparatory orchestra often is the first opportunity students have to play with a large musical ensemble.
“It is very impressive to hear how much they accomplish with her guidance in only a few months of rehearsal,” Carr-Richardson said.
Bissinger, who has degrees in music education and music therapy from ECU, writes strings compositions, which she publishes under the label Boshu Press. Many, including “Blackbeard's Blockade” and “Fire at Tryon,” are based on North Carolina history.
“All of the pieces have stories because that helps the kids relate,” she said.
Her composition, “Flight of the Hummingbird,” will be part of the spring concert.
“With music for this age group, cellos and violas and second violins would rarely get the melody,” Bissinger said. “When I write, everybody gets the melody; everybody gets a chance to shine.”
Through the years, Eastern Youth Orchestras has given numerous young musicians a chance to develop and showcase their talent. Alumni include Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize winning musician Caroline Shaw; attorney and music teacher Christopher Nunnally, a member of the Pitt County Board of Commissioners; Brent Selby, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music; and Amelia Dietrich, who is completing her graduate studies at The Juilliard School in New York.
Dietrich, a violinist, remembers said the Easter Junior Youth Orchestra was her first experience playing with an orchestra.
“That is one of the most vital parts of any musician is learning how to play in a group like that,” she said in a telephone interview from New York. “It was absolutely so influential in my wanting to become a musician.
“We weren't all that talented at the time,” she said, laughing. “But (Hurley) really made us sound so wonderful. "I think it was his energy and his passion for fostering the next generation of musicians."
Dietrich said that many of her peers at Juilliard had to travel two to three hours from their homes as youth to find the kinds of opportunities that Eastern Youth Orchestras made available in Greenville.
“I think it's really a testament to people like Greg Hurley and Wendy Bissinger,” she said. “They could have gone anywhere. They're exceptional teachers, and I think the fact that they chose Greenville is really amazing.”
The Eastern Youth Orchestras will perform their annual spring concerts on Sunday and Feb. 24-25. The 2:30 p.m. Sunday concert will feature the senior orchestra only. The junior and preparatory orchestras will perform at 2:30 p.m. on Feb. 24. Both concerts will be held at First Presbyterian Church, 2101 N. Heritage St., Kinston. A concert featuring all orchestras will be held at 7 p.m. on Feb. 25 at ECU’s A.J. Fletcher Music Hall. All concerts are free. Visit easternyouthorchestras.org.