Young People’s Philharmonic

Young  People’s  Philharmonic

“You are Colombian dancers,” Dominic Fiore tells the young string players. He counts out loud then points animatedly from one section to another as he sings its line, smiling and laughing. A few rooms away, high-school-age musicians have settled back into rehearsal after the stress of seating auditions.
“Play the accents,” Kenneth Bean tells them simply as he conducts a section of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite.

It’s Tuesday night at First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem. The Young People’s Philharmonic Senior Orchestra and Junior String Philharmonic are rehearsing.

Since 1976, more than 3,000 talented middle school and high school age instrumentalists from throughout the Lehigh Valley and neighboring counties have gathered weekly from September to May to study and perform original works from the orchestral and string orchestra repertoire. Chosen by audition, the players work with their conductor, as well as with professional coaches, honing their techniques and musicianship and gaining valuable performance experience. In addition to formal concerts, the students go on the road, performing in the community and at area schools, including their own, where many are active in the musical programs. And while only a small percentage go on to careers in music, most continue with it in some form or another.

“It’s like it’s always a part of them,” says Board President Louise Arnold.

Likewise, the vision of YPP’s late co-founders Jerry T. and Nancy Bidlack remains a part of the organization, even through transition and expansion. Jerry, a music professor at Lehigh University, and Nancy, a cellist and music educator, started the YPP soon after moving to the Lehigh Valley, after learning there was no local youth orchestra. “They held auditions, and there was such a big turnout, they had enough students to start both the YPP and the JSP,” says Molly Bidlack Bean, their daughter and a member of the board. Jerry conducted the YPP until retiring in 2016. Nancy conducted the JSP until 2010, when ALS affected her mobility. Kenneth Bean, who as a high school trumpet player had studied with and later taught with the Bidlacks at Kinhaven Music School, took over the JSP; with Jerry’s retirement, he moved over to the YPP. Fiore, who had taught bass at Kinhaven with the Bidlacks, then took over the JSP.

“I feel like I’m preserving a legacy,” Fiore says. But he brings his own approach to the young string ensemble. An expert in the Suzuki method, he focuses on ear training. “I expect them to be able to sing everything they play.” He also uses humor. “If they’re not having a good time, there’s no point in being here.”

The JSP experience prepares the students for the YPP, where even more is expected from them. “I treat them like they’re in a professional group or a group in college,” says Bean. “I stress personal preparation and attention to their colleagues. They can get a lot out of the experience.”

His message is absorbed by the players. “Everyone has that same drive to keep going and learn more. Not just their own part, but the other parts,” notes concertmaster Leah McCann, a Northampton High School junior.

In the past few years, the original ensembles have been joined by five chamber groups — three string quartets, a brass quintet and a woodwind quintet — and, this year, the YPP Wind Symphony. The first chamber group, a string quartet, sprung from a 2012 request from the Chamber Music Society of Bethlehem for curtain music for one of its concerts. Knowing that her mother, by then mostly immobile, would enjoy the challenge, Molly Bidlack Bean got a group together and brought them to the Bidlack house for coaching. Nancy coached that group until her death later that year. The program grew from there, offering focused students an intense musical experience with more hands-on coaching.

In fall, the YPP gained a feeder program for the winds of its Senior Orchestra with the birth of the Wind Symphony. Led by Nancy Beitler, the ensemble comprises wind players from sixth through ninth grade, with some YPP Senior Orchestra members serving as mentors and rounding out the group. “The word is getting out,” Beitler says, adding that the group has nearly doubled in size from the fall to spring semester and now numbers 20. “We’re growing and the kids are doing well.”


After the completion of seating auditions, Leah McCann assumes her position as concertmaster for the spring semester. McCann, who started with the JSP in fifth grade and moved to the YPP in ninth grade, is hopeful her new post will enable her to get a better understanding of the music.

She is a fan of the YPP’s focus on classical music, which she says is “something you can learn from.” The repertoire balances and contrasts well with that of her high school’s regular and honors orchestras. She also likes interacting with her fellow YPP players. “I like being able to interact with people who share the same passion for music that I have.”


The Young People’s Philharmonic Wind Symphony is not only the newest organization under the YPP umbrella, it’s also the latest in a rich local history of youth bands, says Wind Symphony Director Nancy Beitler. The Juvenile Band of Allentown, founded in 1907, gave boys an opportunity to play through the 1970s. In the 1980s, the Lehigh Valley Youth Band, a small ensemble affiliated with the Marine Band, took its place. Its last performance was in 1996, Beitler says, adding that there was then “a long break where the Valley, which supports many fine community bands, has had no youth band.”

That changed in the fall, when the Wind Symphony began rehearsing. The ensemble plays a variety of music, generally of a higher degree of difficulty than that played by middle school bands, and serves as a supplemental program for students who want a little more challenge, like a traveling sports team, Beitler says. Membership has already doubled. “The kids seem to be really enjoying it; they seem to be excited about the variety of music. They don’t ever tell me it’s too hard. They say it’s hard work. They seem to like the challenge.” The ensemble will hold its spring concert at
7 p.m. on April 28 at Bethany United Methodist Church, Wescosville.


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