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Central Pennsylvania Youth Orchestra Returns with Big Goals

Over the past 31 years, the Central Pennsylvania Youth Orchestra has been a place for young musicians in the region to come together and seriously develop their skills. By bringing in talented players from all around Centre and surrounding counties, the program—which was established with the support of the Penn State University School of Music as part of the Performing Arts School of Central Pennsylvania—has long been the area’s premier youth music ensemble.

Then, during the pandemic, the program was forced to shut down for a whole year, stalling its continued development. But, over the last year, new conductor Anthony Fortuna has worked to rebuild the orchestra’s proud tradition, and he plans to keep on building.

An accomplished musician in his own right, Fortuna has spent the past few years as the orchestra director at Bellefonte Area School District. As he continues his journey with CPYO, he is also transitioning next school year to Lewisburg Area School District, where he will be directing the sixth- through twelfth-grade orchestra. He became involved with CPYO while looking for outside opportunities for his Bellefonte students a little over a year ago. Realizing the orchestra was in a transition stage without a director, he sent his resume and expressed his interest. He got the job and got right to work.

“It’s been an absolutely incredible organization to be a part of,” says Fortuna. “We nearly doubled in size since the beginning of the year. So, we started with about 11 kids, ages 10 to 13, all string players, so violin, viola, cello, and bass. And we grew through to the end of the year, ending at about 21 kids, all ages 10 to 13.”

Over the past year, his eager group of string players has worked hard performing three concerts, with excitement growing after each one.

“I guess it was kind of like a phoenix rising from the ashes. You know, it really was nothing. Then all of a sudden, it became something that people seemed excited about and loved what [the children] did, and I think the kids felt really good about it,” says Fortuna.

The program provides an opportunity to grow for students who are serious about playing.

“As a school teacher, I find myself having trouble differentiating education more towards the higher-end students than the lower ends. So, those kids tend to stagnate in school programs, and they’re not challenged the way that they need to be. So, the youth orchestra provides a space for those students who want to work a little harder, who want to improve a little bit faster, and want to be challenged a little bit more and achieve musical excellence,” says Fortuna. “I think it’s a great place for those kids to go and really just get a lot out of working hard, playing more challenging music and being around other students their age that wanted that same thing.”

Conductor Anthony Fortuna (center) and the ”extremely talented“ young musicians of the Central Pennsylvania Youth Orchestra (Photo by Cindy Gulis)

That’s not to say they don’t also strum up a little fun along the way.

“They also really liked the snacks we have because we always do a snack break. I would joke around with them and say, ‘Oh, they come for the snacks, but they stay for the orchestra,’” Fortuna says with a laugh. Then he adds, “Sometimes I forget—and this is I think the coolest part of directing them—because they sound so good and professional sometimes that I have to honestly remind myself that these are children. They’re not seasoned professionals. They’re not even music majors. They’re just kids that are extremely talented.

“So, when I get really intense in rehearsals, sometimes I just take a moment to remind myself that these children are doing amazing things, but they’re still children, and they still act like children. But when rehearsal is happening and concerts are on, they are focused, ready, and sound amazing. I’m very proud of all the work we’ve been able to do this year.”

Fortuna plans to take that momentum and keep building by adding two or three programs to go along with the current string orchestra. The goal is to add a string orchestra for younger students ages six to ten; a symphony program that would include winds, brass, and percussion along with the strings; and a potential choir program.

“I think we’re going to sort of see how many kids we can get involved in those programs and see what sticks out to kids and what they want to do. Hopefully, we can start to introduce some of the local area band students and have them audition for the orchestra as well. That way, it’ll grow even more,” he says.

Fortuna himself knows what a love of music can add to a person’s life. He grew up in what he calls “a largely non-musical family” but started playing the clarinet in fourth grade. It wasn’t until high school that he began playing strings. In college, he double majored in viola and oboe, and he has a graduate degree in woodwind performance.

“It was cool to have a master’s and almost a doctorate in what my original goal was,” says Fortuna. He never thought he would be teaching younger students, but it is safe to say he has found his passion.

“If you asked me that ten years ago, and you said I would be teaching elementary orchestra and ten-year-olds someday, I would have laughed and said, ‘That’s never going to happen.’ But since working with that group, I have grown so much. I’ve learned they’re just as capable as any other kids, but at their level. They’re capable of advanced musical concepts. They’re capable of high-level music-making, incredible musicality, and it’s been amazing to watch them grow.”

He encourages those students who are passionate, driven, and enthusiastic about music to contact him at [email protected] to learn about the audition process. Concert and other information about CPYO can be found at www.pascp.orgT&G

Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette. This story appears in the August 2022 issue of Town&Gown