Under the watchful eye of dedicated professionals, the Central Illinois Youth Symphony offers a chance for students to engage their musical talents while giving back to the community.

Whether accompanying the Peoria Symphony Orchestra or providing live music for the Peoria Ballet, the talented students of the Central Illinois Youth Symphony have a variety of opportunities to fulfill their passion for the arts. Founded in 1965, CIYS offers students the chance to nurture their talents while learning from the region’s best and brightest musical visionaries.

The idea for a youth symphony sprang forth when J. Elmer Szepessy, then the orchestra director at Peoria High School, approached the superintendent of Peoria Public Schools, Dr. Mark Bills, with the desire to develop a performing arts organization that would provide a higher level of training to the most talented Peoria-area high school musicians. This idea became a reality when CIYS held its first auditions in October of 1965, and its first concerts in Peoria and Pekin the following year.

In the ensuing decades, with its concerted approach to music education, the organization has filled a vital gap in the community. “Schools are cutting funding for the arts left and right,” says Janice Lukich, currently serving her third year as CIYS board president. “In some schools, students aren’t given the opportunity to pick up an instrument until they are 11 years old, and unfortunately, it is rare for a high school to have the personnel and funding to offer a full symphony orchestra. Outside of Chicago or Springfield, we are the only organization in central Illinois to provide students the depth and breadth of experiences found in our program.”

First Opportunities
The orchestral experience offered to students has been recently enhanced with the appointment of Dr. Glenn Block as the Youth Symphony’s music director and conductor. Block has served as director of orchestras and opera and professor of conducting at Illinois State University since 1990. Having also served for 23 years as music director of the Kansas City Youth Symphony—which toured Canada, Spain, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and New York City’s Carnegie Hall under his direction—Block is well-seasoned in bringing national and international recognition to talented young players, and he hopes to do the same at CIYS. “Domestic and international touring is expected from students of this caliber,” he explains. “I’d like to see this program—in the next five to 10 years—progress to the point where it has joined the ranks of the top-tier youth symphonies.”

Block first became interested in CIYS after hearing about it from his students at ISU, some of whom are now on staff with the organization. “I’ve known about the program for the past 10 years. When I first heard about it, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to help further students’ music education.”

A mecca for the musically talented, CIYS selects its students based on a rigorous audition process. “The auditions consist of a two-part process held each spring,” says Block, where students play specific passages of music before a panel of judges comprised of local teachers and music professionals. In addition, CIYS representatives travel throughout 35 communities within a 50-mile radius of Peoria to recruit students who demonstrate the highest musical potential. In collaboration with the schools and their teachers, the organization extends the traditional school programs, enhancing the cultural life of its students—which currently number between 150 and 175—and their communities.

“This is the first opportunity many students have to play general, standard-level repertoire,” says Block. “The compositions our students play are a step up from what they are used to playing in their regular high school classes. They are more demanding, more difficult, more challenging. And they really stretch students’ abilities to perform so they are not only using their talent, they’re also growing in it.”

Block says his work with CIYS beckons back to his own experiences as a youth. “I have very distinct, very strong memories of playing music in school,” he recalls. “The opportunity to play in CIYS is an incredibly powerful resource to students… should they decide to pursue music as a career.”

Preparing Next Steps
Indeed, the multiple facets of the CIYS organization help prepare students for careers both inside and outside of music, says Lukich. They are placed into one of eight musical groups within the organization according to their abilities, allowing CIYS to cater to students with varying levels of skill and talent.

Formed in 1970, the Concert Orchestra offers a symphonic experience for intermediate, middle and high school musicians and prepares students for the Youth Symphony, the top-level orchestral group, which offers the greatest challenge for the most advanced students. In the mid-’90s, CIYS established the Preparatory “Prep” String Orchestra to provide a training base for future orchestra members. The Honors String Quartets, Percussion Ensemble, Brass Ensemble, Flute Choir and Clarinet Choir provide additional enrichment opportunities for students participating in the Concert Orchestra and Youth Symphony, and for students who are not members of either.

While some pursue an interest in music education or music performance, many use the skills and discipline they’ve learned to become doctors, lawyers, scientists and engineers, Lukich adds. “CIYS teaches students how to set goals and overcome challenges that are beyond themselves.

“There are so many different ways music fits into life,” she adds. “Students need to understand the power behind the joy and emotion music can create. It can turn a normal situation into something beautiful.”

A Variety of Exposure
From Mahler and Brahms to the show tunes of West Side Story, the Youth Symphony exposes students to the greatest classical and contemporary composers, laying the groundwork for budding artists to develop a well-rounded appreciation for music with an annual lineup of performances. The organization holds two concert cycles, in the spring and fall, and provides additional opportunities for students to perform at area businesses and social events as well.

CIYS students have played live with the Peoria Ballet, performed with ISU’s Gamma Phi Circus, and joined the Peoria Symphony Orchestra onstage at the Civic Center. “Last year, we began to do outreach at retirement communities with small ensembles,” Lukich notes. “These events help students understand that music is something they should want to share.”

The students also benefit from the knowledge and expertise of a range of special guest musicians. Last year, guests included David Taylor, assistant concertmaster for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; CSO cellist Richard Hirschl; George Stelluto, music director for the Peoria Symphony Orchestra; and Jeff Holbrook, a CIYS alum and trumpeter with the Seoul Philharmonic. “Our guest artists help students gain a perspective from someone who has been successful,” says Lukich, “and show them how to follow the path to success.”

Amy Zordan-Moore, a former CIYS student and now its executive director, says her experiences in the program gave her a new appreciation for music. “I really enjoyed the exposure it gave me to all kinds of music. One thing I learned in graduate school and afterwards: Just because you aren’t earning a paycheck as a performing musician doesn’t mean you aren’t one.”

Connecting Support
CIYS, a not-for-profit organization, relies on the support of foundations, corporations and individuals that believe in its mission. Fred Bally, board treasurer and fundraising chair, says helping to garner support for CIYS is a worthy cause, especially given his own enjoyment of classical music. Half of the organization’s budget derives from the support and donations from its corporate sponsors, including David Vaughn Investments, CEFCU, Illinois Mutual, Hilltop Wealth Management of Raymond James, and Hallmark.

Each year, the organization hosts an ensemble concert and wine tasting as its major fundraising event. “The wine tasting is accompanied by heavy hors d’oeuvres, a cash bar and a silent auction,” Bally notes. “And of course, there’s always plenty of good music performed by the CIYS small ensembles.” This year’s fundraiser, with the theme “The Romance of Broadway,” takes place on November 2nd at the Cornerstone Building, located at 321 Northeast Madison Avenue in Peoria. Tickets are $35, available at artstix.artspartners.net and at the door.

“CIYS does a great deal for aspiring young musicians, and outside support is vital to our continued success,” says Lukich. “At CIYS, students are amazed at what they are able to accomplish. The arts are something that everyone in their hearts can connect with.” a&s