Conductor’s Journal: Italy, Day Nine

[The tenth of eleven installments of Maestro Liuzzi’s journal, originally posted by Josh Yarden at, August 8th, 2015]

All City Orchestra Italy Tour 2015

by Don Liuzzi

June 28 – We part ways: Rome via Orvieto, or Milan via Verona and Lake Garda
One bus will leave with 25 students/alums and chaperones headed for Milan at 10AM, and two buses with 118 will head to Rome (via Orvieto) at 11AM. There is general relaxed bedlam as we all start to load the buses. I jump on to the Milan bus, say a hearty goodbye and deep thanks to all the alums and students on that bus. Buses 2 and 3 head out shortly after.

The trip to Orvieto is quiet. We disembark at the train stop, where we view the old Umbria town high atop the bluffs of a volcanic mountain… impressive! We take a funicular cable car to the top, and start walking its quiet streets.

Orvieto has been an important place since the Renaissance era. The town sports a beautiful small opera house, a deep well that is a favorite stop of Joe Conyers and Seamus, and a Duomo that is as stunning as Siena’s, especially on the outside! Lots of marble and inlaid gold mosaics… Gretchen and I enjoy the frescoes dating back to the 1300’s. A small choir rehearses for a later service… We see a stunning painting of a Madonna that is deeply moving.

We make our way back to the funicular via overlooks that give a rich view of the vineyards below. Back on the buses to Rome… We are returning to our previous hotel in Rome, with dinner coming soon… It turns out to be the only disappointing dinner of the tour – cold rice, peas, and hotdog slivers….Yuck!! Even olive oil and fresh grated parmesan can’t help this meal!

I make a quick announcement of deep thanks for our dear nurse Rebecca who has done a great job keeping everyone going health wise. And for Vanessa our videographer/photographer… I can’t wait to see photos and footage… coming soon! I also announce the chamber music performance, to be held on the outdoor patio, in the gardens.

The students gather at 8:45 for a very INTERESTING jazz jam: 2 alto saxes, brushes on a drum, a bass clarinet, a trombone, and a trumpet… the solos are really fun, drawing huge cheers after each one, including an uproarious cheer for Frank Machos as he blows a solo on Isaiah’s horn at the end.

Next is the woodwind quintet with the Puccini to quiet the crowd down… LOVELY… and a perfect reminder of the country we are in. The Mozart vocal duo blows us away with the woodwinds accompanying. Finally, the Bruckner Ave Maria quietly and peacefully brings the evening to a close… Bed time everyone. We need to leave by 5:30AM for the Rome airport.


Video clips of the jazz, percussion woodwind and vocal ensembles which performed throughout the Italy Tour are posted on the All City Philadelphia Facebook page.


Conductor’s Journal: Italy, Day Eight

[The ninth of eleven installments of Maestro Liuzzi’s journal, originally posted by Josh Yarden at, August 7th, 2015]

All City Orchestra Italy Tour 2015

by Don Liuzzi

June 27 – Florence We have our final concert ahead of us. I realize our run-out trip to Florence will be a long day… The Uffizi Medici Palace Museum will be first, followed by a big sit-down lunch/final meal with the whole group, then a walking tour of the immediate Florence area, including a walk over Ponte Vecchio. My eye is on the big Piazza del Signoria – the weather seems to be good, which is a huge relief.

We depart the buses alongside the Arno River and see the Ponte Vecchio, as we over a bridge just south of the famed OLD bridge. As soon as we cross the river it is apparent we are in a crowded city. We pass local artists painting and hawking their work. We put our instruments and clothing bags in a waiting room, to be gathered much later in the afternoon.

The museum has several floors… Gretchen and I head for the Giotto room where a very important Madonna and Child painting is on display. To get up close to the Giotto painted eyes of the Madonna, to see their warmth and quiet joy, is to see the impetus and flowering of the Renaissance up close. There is the Botticelli room with his contemporaries… stunning details in the religious icons, though there is an influx of interesting images within these later Madonna and Child paintings.

Blair Kidd makes some very insightful observations on these strange details – the head of a bull, a mouse, an untied shoe, etc… Some of these details are pretty “strange” according to Blair (violin), and she is right. The addition of darker “human” details to these “religious” paintings was a kind of “reality check” to these religious-themed paintings. Some of those details are a bit disconcerting, almost scary, in some cases funny, and perhaps all meant to be so… ah, the human scene!

After an hour, we get museum exhaustion and head for the outdoor terrace where we get an up-close view of the Duomo and Palace fortress. Gretchen takes a few photos, and we realize we are last to leave the museum… We scurry down to the street level and fortunately find a sea of red Phillies t-shirts about 100 yards ahead of us. We hurry along to be with the group, heading for our final lunch together.

It is a nice restaurant. The service is rather slow, but that is ok. We have plenty of time to eat and relax before the day really picks up again. I am busy finalizing my list of titles for each of the chaperones that I will announce after lunch. My eventual announcement of every chaperone’s title is met with lots of laughs and clapping… EVERYONE realizes how hard the chaperones have worked on this tour. The biggest cheer is saved for Margie Keefe, as I dub her ‘The Madonna and Mother of us All.’ She has been the organizing engine of this whole tour.

I finish my speaking with a kind of pep talk. It is a “we-are-at-the-end-but-don’t-lose-your-energy” speech, as we will likely have a big crowd hear us this evening. I then ask them to WATCH my conducting gestures more closely for musical cues, such as dynamics, smoothness or precision, vibrato for the strings… even this gesture with the left hand… I touch my thumb and middle finger… ”Got Eem!” I say, to a big laugh and a rousing cheer… An undisclosed source had told me of this game which all of the kids know. Wow… that was fun!

It is after 3PM… time to get ready for our walking tour of Florence. We are guided to the Duomo (Cathedral) Santa Maria del Fiore, and walk by the Baptistry, famous for its HUGE bronze sculpted doors. We walk past various piazzas getting a smattering of historical bits and pieces of Florence’s past and why it became such a Renaissance center of power (through its textile industry essentially). The wealth begot great architecture, art and music.

We walk over the Ponte Vecchio, briefly eyeing jewelers row on the bridge. I look up to the sky… It is getting quite dark and cloudy. A few drops of rain hit my face. I ask Gerardo about the forecast. He says the shower is brief and the evening weather looks fine. Still, I mentally plead for the clouds to MOVE.

We make it back to the Piazza del Signoria, with the life-sized copy of David, and the actual sculptures of the Rape of Sabines, the Persius beheading of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini (almost as famous as Michelangelo), and other significant sculptures. We will perform next to, and under these statutes on a kind of open porch, called the Loggia del Lanzi, overlooking the Piazza. Quite a setting for a concert!

Chairs are being set up, the sound system with various mics spread strategically through the orchestra. Lights are being hung, as it will be a night concert. Firenze Orchestre Giovanili (FOG) banners are up, and we are about to play what I am very certain will be a GREAT start for their 2015 summer concert series.

Veronica and the other staff from FOG introduce me to the evening’s narrator. He is the president of FOG, a musicologist, composer and educator. His name is Mario Rufini, a man with a warm smile and a very pleasant affect. We huddle over the score and his Italian translation. He asks for a copy go the score and I give him an extra. We review the pauses and times to flow… This will be a good performance.

Our sound check includes Copland, and even some last minute fine tuning of La Forza del Destino. The strings are REALLY getting close now, especially on that exposed unison run that plunges down and rises up. (Any string player reading this will know what I am referring to.) We also check Berlioz, which we have not played in a few days, and Danse Bachannale.

People are gathering in the piazza to listen to our soundcheck. The sky is clearing… a good crowd should gather for the concert. We need a harp check. The mic on the harp is not strong enough. We play through the opening of Swan Lake and the harp now comes to life in the sound system. This will be a nice evening for the harp to be heard! Our sound man, a somewhat taciturn older Italian gentleman, actually seems to know what he is doing, as Brian and Joseph report to me that the sound is balanced and quite good out in the big Piazza.

Start time inches closer. The students have already changed into their concert attire. The FOG folks ask about maybe a bit of chamber music just before concert time… I thought chamber music would be too difficult in such a huge Piazza without amplification, but I rethink and we organize the jazz group and the percussion ensemble to play from 9:00 to 9:15 as a teaser for the crowd. They play well, with great spirit… Then we wait for the sound guy to show up. The lighting tech guy doesn’t know where he is, but he tells me he can turn it all on as long as the mics and equalizations are set from the sound check. It is already close to 9:30, so I say – “Let’s get going!”

We tune, and the FOG officials make an opening speech. Then we launch into the Berlioz and it goes very well – best yet. Then we plow through William Tellto the delight of the large crowd… over a thousand at this point I am told. The cellos perform very very well, but I am perplexed as a first violinist leaves her seat.

In my effort to keep the concert flowing, I again forget to give the cello section a bow. I have some apologizing to do! Emma’s English horn solo and Hannah’s flue solo are stellar as usual, and the strings are especially listening well to their rhythmic nuances.

The missing violinist returns to her seat for Saints Saens Danse Bacchanale. I ask her if she’s ok, and she says she is fine. I find out later it was a brief bloody nose attended to well by John K and Luigi. I realize during Saints Saens that the lighting is not very good. I look to the lighting guy at the sound table and ask where is all the lighting?!? It turns out some of it is not plugged in. The lighting is adjusted and quickly all in place.

Danse Bachannale soars and we are into our final “roll” of pieces in our last concert. We perform the Copland works… After the lovely Variations, played with the best panache and power of any of the concerts, we jump into Lincoln Portrait. Mario is excellent, though the score I gave him is not helping him as much as he had hoped. He quickly turns back to his narration translation and relies on my cues. The orchestral quality of this final Lincoln Portrait is the highest of the tour, I feel… All the solos are excellent, and the trumpet duets perfect. The horns’ muted/stopped after-beats are right on. Martina’s horn solo is sweet as usual, and Ariannis’ trombone solo is fantastic – her best solo of the tour.

After the two Coplands, Joe conducts a beautiful rendition of Lyric for Strings. We then plow into Tchaikovsky Swan Lake and Jordan sounds gorgeous on the harp…. The whole ensemble playing in both Tchaikovsky movements is really responsive. We are moving together better than ever. Next is Finlandia, and the playing is simply excellent – The brass is FULL, the woodwinds sweetly in tune, the strings rich with gusto. Anthony, on cymbals, is very solid, and Denzel rocks the piazza with his timpani rolls!

We are now ready for our final regular program work – La Forza del Destino. This taut Verdi requires focused energetic playing from all sections, and I am thrilled with this last rendition of the Forza. The brass starts solidly, and the strings are READY with the dancing 3/8 drama. The solo woodwinds lovely, and the low celli and trombone rhythms are excellent. That wicked unison string passage that rages down-then up is the best of the tour. The harp and glock section with the delicate triplets in the violins goes really well… and that is tough music!!

The crowd ROARS after the rousing Verdi… I am ready to plow into the encores, but I see vehement shaking of heads from the FOG officials. It is close to 11PM, and overtime for the chair crew from the city is a no-no. I quickly decide… Ok, then let’s end this tour with a Mambo! We plow through a rousing rendition with abandon… The crowd roars!

One more? Kids in the crowded piazza are launching glow-in-the-dark mini rockets, which are floating and falling through the air all over the square. Liberty March would be a a great closer, but again I look at the anxious FOG folks who are looking at their watches. We must stop. The final concert is triumphantly… but sadly… over.

There is much packing to do. The cellos must be turned in, and the percussion instruments packed to be returned. The banners are packed away, pictures are taken, lightening is now flashing distantly in the sky, and the first few raindrops begin to fall… What timing!

We make our way to the buses along the Arno. We come upon some young Italian students playing in the street by the river, covered by a terrace roof. They are GOOD…actually terrific, and the All City students are intrigued. They want to stay and listen, or take out their violins and play along! It is late… raindrops coming faster, so we pile into the buses… happy, a bit wet, exhausted, and ready for those nice Montecatini beds!

Conductor’s Journal: Italy, Day Seven

[The eight of eleven installments of Maestro Liuzzi’s journal, originally posted by Josh Yarden at, August 5th, 2015]

All City Orchestra Italy Tour 2015


by Don Liuzzi

June 26 – Lucca
Version 2The morning is dedicated to R&R. After three non-stop days on the move, EVERYONEneeds a free morning. Gretchen and I decide to take the funicular cable car up to alto vecchio Montecatini. The ride is a bit jerky, but the view, as we rise over Tuscan valleys is absolutely stunning. We walk the narrow streets, enjoy gorgeous views at various overlooks, visit one of the small churches up there, grab some well documented gelato, then head back for our funicular ride to the base where the hotel is only a block away.

Just before we board the cable car, we spot an elderly man painting Tuscan scenes. His work is very good, and he is a lovely fellow… We buy two paintings, happy to support a local artist. We get back just in time for lunch at Noon. Buses will depart for Lucca at 1:15.

I am very excited about playing Lucca, a well known center of music in Tuscany. And its charm as an old city dating back centuries makes it another historical destination. We were originally to perform in San Paolino church where Puccini performed as organist, but we have been shifted to San Michele Cathedral, the largest church in Lucca. Veronica has promised us quite an event, with drummers and flag bearers welcoming us… I am not sure what exactly she means…

We arrive at Lucca, and walk our way into the walled town, maps in hand, with an hour and a half to roam the streets and explore. My wife and I walk past San Michele, another massive marble structure, with St Michael, the winged angel at the top! We walk through alleyways, past the town tower dating back 500 years…. not enough time to climb it. We then walk by the Lucca Conservatory of Music, with a statue of Boccherini playing a cello out in front. Perhaps he taught here or maybe even started the school… I hear scales form a vibraphone, a wafting trumpet, a singer vocalizing… I see a dad and his son carrying a trumpet case as they hurry through the front door… must be late for his lesson!

It’s 3:30, time to set-up chairs at the church. We have planned chamber music at three locations leading up to the concert. Woodwind quintet and brass quintet at 5:45 in the nearby Piazza del Puccini. It’s right in front of the house where he grew up, and now a full-fledged Puccini museum. The jazz and percussion groups will be at 6PM, outside the church, then the alumni string quartet, and another group of strings with the Bach Double Violin Concerto – 1st movement with Cheyenne and Vilme soloing. The woodwind quintet will accompany Charles (a violinist) and Danielle (violist) singing a Mozart vocal duo. Finally, at 6:10, the ten a cappella singers will perform Bruckner. This will be the busiest set of pre-concert chamber music of the tour!

After we set up the chairs in the church, Vanessa our videographer asks for permission to film the concert from an OLD marblepulpit… Surprisingly, the church officials agree. We sound check some Verdi… The church acoustic has “only” about a 4.5 second delay, brief by comparison to Perugia’s San Lorenzo echo feast. Then a bit of Copland. Our narrator, another local councilman, will arrive at 6:30, the concert start time. Alas, another Copland narration by the seat of our pants. I will give him the same instructions for starting and stopping his narration.

As the sound check is over by 5:25, I ask all the chamber groups to ready their playing positions. Puccini square is only a few blocks from the church. The jazz group led by Isaiah and Denzel’s percussion group set up outside. The woodwind quintet (Dotan and friends) gather music stands and walk over with me, with the brass quintet (Leonard-led) following us.

I am quickly introduced to the director of the Puccini Museum when we arrive At Puccini square. He insists I tour the Puccinihouse, and I oblige (since Puccini is my favorite Italian composer, other than Resphigi). There are manuscripts of early works, opera notebooks with melodies from a few of his operas, plus a very important early manuscript of La Boheme. (I see his corrections and edits for the opening to the opera). On display is also VERY old Steinway, on which Puccini composed his final works, including Turandot. I tinkle a few keys in the upper register – nice piano! There are family photos, his wife (whom he stole from his best friend… Ouch!), his letters to her and other associates. There is a mention of his womanizing, but also a mention of his staying with his wife until the end, despite his lapses. Puccini wrote some of the most beautiful melodies on the planet, yet he was a flawed human being… Aren’t we all to some degree?

While I am breezing through the museum, I hear the sounds of the woodwind quintet playing excerpts from Tosca, and then an excerpt from Aida from the brass quintet. I exit the museum to the sounds of the approaching Renaissance drum team complete with flag bearers and 14th century clothed wenches with bundled twigs… Out there! Veronica tells me we are to march behind them as they lead us to the church.

Rum ta-ta, Rum ta-ta, Rum Rum Rum… Off we go with the ACObrass quintet following me and a few other All City members behind the drum team. It makes quite a racket through the small streets of Lucca. Very soon we are heading into the open square where San Michele church is located. Alas, it seems the Renaissance drumming is in competition with our own ACO percussion group. It turns into a kind of “battle of the bands”, that Charles Ives would have adored. It’s weird, cacophonous, and finally… kind of fun.

The All City percussion group somehow keeps its time and place, while the Renaissance drum team booms away at its marching cadence. Yes, Charles Ives would have loved it! As the Renaissance drum cadence finally ends, the All City Percussion rages to a sudden close… then the Renaissance team decides to play the ending of their cadence again… and finally the All City percussionists answer with the last 8 bars of their Little Rhumba… to lots of cheers!!!… and the battle is over!

We enter the church. The Dvorak quartet 1st movement is just underway… The alums sound wonderful, followed by Bach Double where Cheyenne and Vilme shine, and the Mozart Duo, which blows the audience away! Finally, the soothing Bruckner Ave Maria… sooo perfect in a church setting.

The councilman arrives with his green, red and white sachet, draped diagonally over his suit… This must be worn by all government officials at public events! I quietly go over the Italian narration with the councilman, to fill him in on the stopping and pausing moments in the text… He understands! The orchestra is in place as the Bruckner finishes… I want to start as closely on time as possible. We have a lot of music to play!

There is a jam packed, standing room only crowd, and many are standing! I look for the concertmaster – where is Cheyenne? Ah… There she is, on the other side of the orchestra, by the basses. I signal to her; time to tune the orchestra!!

The concert is wonderful… Every piece is getting better and better each night. Both Copland works go extremely well. Emilyrose is really starting to nail the final timpani bass line in Variations on a Shaker Melody! I catch Maria’s eye as I cue the final phrase of the Variations… I am happy when players look up!

Lincoln Portrait goes very well, in spite of the lack of a run-through. Sensing the work’s power, our councilman gives a strong, heartfelt reading. He is sweating as much as I am when we finish the Copland. His effort somehow inspires me.

We play everything except Danse Bacchanale. (Alas… no bacchanals in a church!) I decide to omit the West Side Story selections in the encore. As much as I love those beautiful Bernstein melodies, we need to finish. Our encores are Cinema Paradiso, Mambo (a huge hit as usual) and Liberty March… I cue the clapping again, and the crowd is happy to join in. The march ends very solidly, to cheers and a standing ovation… Best concert yet.

After a very quick pack-up, my wife and I take Vanessa to eat in the old colosseum section of Lucca… an oval “piazza” that has the ruins of a Roman arena underground. There are a number of restaurants there, plus lots of children running and dancing around to a street musician playing familiar tunes on a sax in a quasi-jazz sort of way. Our pasta dinner is very fine, topped off again with great gelato. We all meet at the buses, tired but very happy. Our Montecatini hotel is a welcome home… and the bed, VERY welcome!

Conductor’s Journal: Italy, Day Six

[The seventh of eleven installments of Maestro Liuzzi’s journal, originally posted by Josh Yarden at, August 3rd, 2015]

All City Orchestra Italy Tour 2015

by Don Liuzzi

June 25th – Montecatini via Siena
The morning is bright, and CALM. This bodes well for tonight’s concert in Montecatini, which will be at the Terme Tettuccio, a kind of arts park, a 19th century version of an ancient Roman bath house. Montecatini, in the heart of Tuscany, was (and still is to some degree) a destination for special bath waters, to drink and to bathe in for good health. We won’t have time to test out the healing waters of Montecatini, but we will play a full concert there, and use Montecatini as a base for the next three nights.

We load up the buses, and the extra van has been hired to carry our 14 celli, the trombones, and extensive percussion. We depart our Choco Hotel home in Perugia. I wish I had bought some Perugian chocolate… darn it!

We’re leaving Umbria and heading to Tuscany, where we will visit the historic city of Siena, a town steeped in medieval and early Renaissance traditions. I spent one night there, years ago. Georgiy, our alum principal cellist, is ecstatic to return to his musical summer home, having participated in the annual Siena music festival. Our time there though will be brief: an hour long walking tour, time to learn about Siena’s patron Saint Catherine and see her thumb and head enshrined in St. Catherine’s Cathedral… a bit gruesome I must admit.

It turns out Catherine was quite the follower and spiritual leader of the church in that era, and she was integral to the return of the Papacy from Avignon, France to Rome. Her death at the age of 33 was in a sense intentional, in her effort to follow Christ as she believed she should – maybe a bit too literal?

imageThe day is hot as we leave St Catherine’s church to explore the streets and alleyways of Siena. We will have one more church to visit – the gorgeous Duomo, which was built intentionally to outdo the Duomo of Florence. The intention was to be bigger, but when they expanded the existing foundation, they mistakenly built on a slope with unsettled ground… The expansion of the Duomo in the 1400’s never happened, but the inside (and outside) of the rest of it is incredibly beautiful. How many ways and how many different kinds of marble can be used in a building! The whole church is a Gothic marble sculptural wonder.

The most interesting part of the Duomo tour for me is the “library” whose frescoes are imagewell preserved and whose library contents are displayed beautifully in glass cases: Benedictine monks wrote out books of Plain Song by hand, in full developed Neume notation. My freshman theory teacher at Peabody would have been ecstatic. I hum a few bars of plain song tunes, which I memorized when I was required to sing in front of theory class 37 years ago. “Victimae pau-scouli laudes… Immolent Christ Anni,” and my other favorites, “Tantum ergo sacramentum, veni-re-nu-ce-nui-i-i…” phyrygian mode – so haunting… and the mixolydian joyful “Panis Angelicus… dat panis ho-minum… dat panis geli-cum, figuris ho-minum… O resmi ma bilis, man ducat dominum, pauper servus, et humilis… A-A-A-men.”  Being in this church and seeing these original musical scroll books has certainly jogged my memory!

We leave the Duomo and end up in the main square called “Il Campo” with its towering watch tower overlooking the open square. Il Campo is the site of the biannual horse race. Each neighborhood of Siena has its own flag, and its own patron animal – pig, rhinoceros, hen, you name it… and the horse racing competition is quite fierce. THOUSANDS attend these races, and we are fortunately not here at race time… There are enough tourists everywhere though—this is definitely a tourist town.

imageWe split up into groups to grab lunch. My wife and I have a wonderful Tuscan pasta con salada mista. A bit pricy… but well prepared. We all meet up again at the Il Campo to head to the buses to finish our journey to Montecatini. The sun is scorching and there is nowhere in the square for shade. Lots of gelato is eaten. Teresa, one of our guides, has sun burnt tops of her feet. I shade them as she calls ahead for confirmation of our next Copland narrator. My memory of Siena’s physical beauty was confirmed with this “stop by” visit of two and a half hours.

After another hour of bus travel we arrive at the gentle town of Montecatini. As most towns dating back to medieval times, there is an Alto Montecatini, but we are in the 19th Century Basso Montecatini.

imageOur hotel is a wonder. The Grand Hotel du Park et Regina dates back to those 19th Century times, perfectly restored and modernized. (Think “Grand Budapest Hotel” on a slightly smaller scale!) This will be a nice home for the next three nights. The room ceilings are high, there is an “original” (open cage) style elevator, and the ambience is quite elegant.

We settle into our rooms, then enjoy dinner. The food at this hotel is certainly a step up from the Perugia and Rome hotels. The pasta is excellent, and the chicken very well prepared. We are well fed before we all head over across the street and eventually into the Terme Tettuccio park.

imageThe setting is absolutely elegant, a large courtyard with marble everywhere… floors, columns, statues, walls… with no roof. It is an enclosed imitation of a Roman bath house, without the bath. (That’s at a different location.) The 19th Century creation of this marble park is accentuated by a 19th Century era horse buggy, seemingly incongruent to the look of an ancient Roman bath house.

I help set up the orchestra chairs. Percussion is placed towards the open hallway leading to the gardens. We place our standing banners in the appropriate places–one by the entrance to the park and one in front of the orchestra to the side. We begin to rehearse… touch the Verdis, and then meet our narrator, Professore Guiseppe Tavanti, who teaches music history at the nearby Leoncavallo Conservatory.

He is VERY well prepared, has enlarged his Italian translation, and we confirm the spots in the text to wait for the music. The rehearsal of the Copland goes smoothly. The sound in the open plaza of marble, even without a roof, will be quite good and natural.

We have about 45 minutes before concert time, and the chamber music will begin shortly. First, a new addition – a jazz group consisting of Isaiah on alto sax, Marcus on bass, Jake on trumpet, Travis on brushes and a cymbal, and Denzel on xylophone ( …too bad there is no vibraphone on hand.) They play a standard, and are very good! (I should not have been surprised.) Then the brass quintet plays a work, followed by the woodwind quintet playing their first performance of Puccini’s Tosca excerpt, ending with the heavenly Bruckner Ave Maria. The chamber music component of this tour is turning out to be a wonderful and perfect prelude to each concert. (Only the windy Assisi concert had no chamber music… it was too risky there!)

The concert starts…We drop the Berlioz, and start right in with William Tell. As the evening progresses, the lighting provided has invited lots of evening bugs. I see that the lights’ beams are quite full of swarming gnats and other critters… I am hopeful it is not a burden to the performing students. (I find out later that the principal trumpet Leonard had to swallow a fly when taking a breath–ugh!!–and that the insects were annoying to all the orchestra members… sigh… At least we had no wind!)

The concert progresses, and the Copland Lincoln Portrait is read with great timing and understanding. At its conclusion, we have Maestro Prof Tavanti take a bow, and he thanks the audience, followed by a surprise visit from the Mayor (I think) wearing a sachet of white, red and green—the colors of the Italian flag—diagonally across his torso. He is happy to officially welcome us to Montecatini. Then Veronica takes him aside and reminds him to mention that Firenze Orchestre Giovanili is the presenter. She makes sure he thanks THEM for the concert.

imageWe continue, and play our ENTIRE rep, including all our encores. When I announce Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso, I hear an audible gasp/sigh of joy from a front row audience member. It goes very well… the best performance of the work yet. We slide quickly into West Side Story selections, then into Mambo…and finally our first performance of Liberty Bell March, which proves to be a huge hit as the audience claps along. I decide to try conducting the clapping with some dynamics in the melodic phrase. The audience complies joyfully. This is turning into some serious fun! I am very happy as the concert ends… This is the best the orchestra has played in all of my 10 years.

I am greeted by a lovely older gentleman, a community concert band director and retired music teacher. He is deeply appreciative of the concert… I am grateful for his praise, and I express my appreciation in stumbling Italian. Another woman is gushing with praise for the wonderful talent and diversity of the orchestra members – “nero, bianco, giallo, molti differente tipo de studenti nel orchestre!” I say, “Si, e bella, e quella e America!” (Yes it’s beautiful and that is America!)

I remember the lovely interactions and autograph signings in Perugia… The supportive and joyous receptions we have had at each concert, the Assisi crowd that deeply appreciated our efforts to persevere in the wind, along with Father Martin’s joyful attendance.

I can’t wait for the final two concerts in Lucca and Florence, to see what the music will bring! We pack up and pass through the gates of the park, right across from our hotel… All sleep SOUNDLY.

Conductor’s Journal: Italy, Day Five (Part II)

[The sixth of eleven installments of Maestro Liuzzi’s journal, originally posted by Josh Yarden at, July 31st, 2015]

All City Orchestra Italy Tour 2015

by Don Liuzzi

The Evening of June 24th – Assisi
The chairs for the musicians are being unstacked as we arrive. I try as much as possible to get the orchestra set up in that corner away from wind gusts… I am only partially successful. The whole orchestra is BIG, including our full percussion section, and our hosts also need to set up chairs for the audience. Time is ticking, and the wind gusts are clearly not abating. I estimate that the back few rows of violins, some percussion and maybe horns MIGHT escape the worst of the wind gusts.image

The equipment truck backs in. Basses, percussion, timps and trombones are unpacked. Celli were hand carried from the buses. Everyone is on the move to be ready for the 4:30 sound check. Again, there is only one small room for changing and one bathroom for 117 musicians, but I am more concerned with the wind, and the general effort to organize our first outdoor concert. We start checking sound closer to 5PM.

Daniela, the Perugia/Assisi coordinator, and the gentleman who is our local presenter, have promised us an Assisi Council Woman to perform Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, our featured work on all the concerts in Italy. She cannot arrive until 5:45 at the earliest. It will be another adventure of a performance!

We warm up with Nabucco, and I tell the students this will be a shorter program. It has always been planned that way, but with the wind building rather than subsiding, we will be fortunate to complete a one hour concert. I make the speech to prepare the students for anything, including the flexibility to HELP each other with page turns and clothes-pinning the music. This concert, I tell them, will redefine the meaning of ‘stand partner. ‘ You must HELP each other. Jordan, our music stand master chaperone gives an announcement to “hold music stands down with your feet.” We are in for that kind of concert.

5:50PM – I get frantic pleas from Frank and Magloire to move the concert inside the church. Two problems: We now have a seated crowd of around 100-200 people, and it’s getting too late to work out the logistics. We do check the possible concert configuration in the church, including moving some pews. Maybe it could work, BUT the pastor of San Rufino is not around, so we have no permission, and the church is pretty dark inside. I decide to nix the idea. We will brave the winds.

5:55 – The lovely council woman arrives, and I give her the instructions: Follow my hand cue to BEGIN speaking; stop when I touch your arm.image

6:05 – We open with Nabucco, which–surprisingly in the outdoor setting–sounds full. The church façade and the adjacent buildings act as a three-sided acoustical shell, and there actually is some resonance. Amidst a few crazy wind gusts, Nabucco actually comes off. We then launch into Saints Saens Danse Bachanale, which we can now perform outside a church! A few wind gusts in quiet places cause some mild shrieks from the audience. This is NOT easy. Finlandia is next… powerful and short!

We move on to Copland, with our guest speaker. She too recites the entire text of the narration. Somehow the wind gusts are not as strong during her solo recitation. We launch into the complete piece, and the gusts grow stronger… Sheets of music are flying, yet the students mightily hang on. Their mutual assistance is really impressive. The speaker hangs in there too, and it is the only time I have ever conducted with just my right hand; my left is plastered on the score to keep it from blowing away. I am incredibly frustrated, yet we finish with only a few mild mishaps ensemble-wise, and it actually comes off.

Lyric for Strings is Joe Conyers’ test in gust management. The wind obeys and even ceases during a few of the quietist moments. By this time all chaperones and yours truly are “on deck” holding down the stands and music… Joe struggles with the same issue of holding down the score with the left hand, and conducting with only his right. Lyric quietly ends, and we launch into Verdi La Forza. Now the wind is getting stronger!! As we finish the Verdi, mercifully, I realize we need to end the concert as soon as possible, before we all get blown away. Some empty chairs are being blown over!

I call out Mambo as our encore finisher. The wind is now at its strongest, but we miraculously finish it with panache amidst swirling sheet-music. This has been the worst concert experience of my life… other than the snow squall I played through in Colorado as a student back in the summer of 1979. But it turns out that for many of the All City students this was the most thrilling concert they have experienced to date. I figure extremity can be thrilling!

After a quick pack of the equipment truck (that team led by Brian, Mike and Darren is getting GREAT at packing our stuff), we’re off to our dinner at an outdoor grill restaurant in the hills outside of Assisi. Our tables are underneath vine and flower covered pergolas. Man, it is COLD outside!

I give a speech to the students before the meal. Our orchestra played their guts out under very difficult conditions. NEVER would the Philadelphia Orchestra have survived or even performed a co
ncert in that kind of wind. I am very sincere about that. I am incredibly proud of All City!

After a time I assist with the vegetarian dishes reaching the correct people. The pasta dish is a fine lasagna, and then the grilled meat makes it to the tables. I throw my vegetarian leanings aside, and scarf down a LOT of ribs!

The wind is still howling at times, and the plastic tarp on top of the vines of the pergolas are wildly slapping up and down in the wind. After the main course comes gelato for desert. We bus back to our Choco hotel in Perugia, all very cold and sleepy.

Conductor’s Journal: Italy, Day Five (Part I)

[The fifth of eleven installments of Maestro Liuzzi’s journal, originally posted by Josh Yarden at, July 31st, 2015]

All City Orchestra Italy Tour 2015

by Don Liuzzi

June 24th – Assisi
The night must have had a big rain, for when I go out after breakfast to get some Euros at a “Banco-mat,” there are puddles of rain water, and the fresh morning breeze with crystal blue sky means a weather front has passed. I am excited for the clear weather, which means we are to have our 1st outdoor concert this coming evening without a weather hitch – or so I think!

We board the buses with instruments, but not luggage, as this is a “runout” where we will return to our Choco Hotel late in the evening. The Umbria landscape continues to roll before us as we head 40 minutes southwest–actually slightly back towards Rome–which is significant because, although no one else knows this, the previous night and early this morning Mr. Machos, Mr. Conyers and I have made a last ditch effort to return to Rome to play briefly for the Pope, as the Philadelphia Committee for the Pope’s visit is finally all there today to have an early afternoon audience with him.

We receive word at 7:30AM that it will not be possible… Oh well, his loss and their’s, but it would have made for a truly complex day to run back to Rome, then make it back in time for our 6PM concert in Assisi.

image“Alto” Assisi is truly one of the gems of Umbria (and all of Italy). It has a Rocco Castello Majore (castle) at the top of the mountain, as well as one of the religious and artistic wonders of the world in the San Francesco Basilica, with all the 13th Century frescoes of Giotto, that revolutionary painter of his day, who humanized painting for the centuries to come. And it has that small town sense that time has passed it by, in the most positive of ways.

We take on its pace – peaceful, gentle, with the sun as our gentle clock. Gretchen and I join a couple of small groups of students and chaperones to explore the sunny alleyways that meander through the town… up and down…For a brief time we think of heading to the castle. It turns out that we have ascended a road leading in a different direction, which becomes a dirt path, but it offers stunning views of the valley below.

We double back to our concert site in the square at San Rufino, and I decide to check on the wind gusts in the performing area in front of the church. The wind gusts might effect us less if we hug the corner, angling slightly outward in a kind diagonal view of the piazza. I am banking on the winds dying down around sunset. Gretchen and I go off separately to explore and to hunt for a good “panini” shop. Or walk takes us to an incredible overlook into the valley below. There is a horse farm at the foot of towering hills, with a few puffy clouds sailing over the tall peaks. The air is cool and I am concerned about strength of the wind… but, again, on a fresh breezy day such as this, a sunset will often calm the gusts down – I hope for our concert’s sake.image

The homes in alto vecchio, (old) Assisi, are perfectly kept. We meander peacefully past honeysuckle and bougainvillea flowers draped out of windows and along ancient walls, until we find a small panini shop. It is empty, with only the owner and his wife and baby inside. We order panini with hunks of fresh mozzarella, pomodori (tomatoes) and, prosciutto (thinly sliced salted ham) drizzled generously with GREAT olive oil. In the words of Chaperone Brian Ewing (we’ve turned Brian and his minions onto the panini shop) this is the “best damn ham & cheese sandwich on the planet.”
We lunch at the perfect spot, sitting at the edge of a garden wall, next to plum trees rustling in the breezes, against a backdrop of wispy cloud headed mountains. This is my first “yes, I am at Italy’s pace” moment.

Now we have to make our way to the other end of town, to the Francesco Basilica, for our guided tour of the famous cathedral. Along the way we take pictures of students posing in front of gelateria stores. We shop a bit and have our first gelato of the tour. My favorite flavor is now “cocco” (coconut) – WOW!!!

We finally arrive for our 3:30 meeting at the base of the Basilica, where Teresa and Yaelle are waiting for us with their yellow umbrella. Hmm… I wonder if that is an Italian word!


Each of our bus groups will tour separately, guided by one of the monks. Bus #3 meets Brother Martin, and we instantly fall in love with him. This guy (from New York) is both very funny AND quite profound… quite a combination. Though we are in a church, a number of us can’t help but crack up over his running commentary, accompanied by his laser pointed perusal of the art. His narration of Saint Francis’ holy life, depicted in the paintings by Giotto and others, is moving, compelling, and hilarious.

Saint Francis’ practice of Christianity was a profound return to a simple and pure faith. His inclusion of nature and animals as expressions of the Divine echo throughout our tour of the church and the town itself. We take a group picture with Brother Martin in front of the Basilica. Gretchen and I invite him to our evening concert, and he is eager to attend.

The BIG group picture gets taken just to the side of the Basilica… Vanessa carefully gathers us all (117 students and conductors) on the steps leading down to the lower road and lower Basilica entrance. It is a stunning setting for a group shot… as stunning as the one in front of St Peters two days earlier.
After the pictures are taken we need to get moving towards the San Rufino church. The buses are close by, so we board them quickly and head to the other end of the alto vecchio cita to set up for sound check and the 6 p.m. concert.

Coming Next: The infamous “Don with the Wind” Concert in Assisi

Conductor’s Journal: Italy, Day Four

[The fourth of eleven installments of Maestro Liuzzi’s journal, originally posted by Josh Yarden at, July 29th, 2015]

All City Orchestra Italy Tour 2015

by Don Liuzzi

Juimagene 23rd – Perugia
Since again, there is no possibility of performing for the Pope, we stick to the schedule, and get on the buses for the 9AM departure. Everyone is ready with their luggage and instruments. We must take everything with us… the real tour is beginning NOW!

We are heading into one of my favorite “ragione nel Italia” – Umbria. This is the first mountainous area outside of Rome, heading to the northeast. Each town has a basso centro (more modern lower altitude town centers near train stations) and an alto centro where the old “fortress” section of each city sits, usually with an old castle at the top – a “rocco di majore”. We pass by a number of these Umbria towns – Orvieto (where we will visit at the end), Spoleto, Assisi (the site of our 2nd concert) and finally the capital of the Umbria region, Perugia. The day is sunny yet with more humidity and wind swept clouds blowing in from the south. I am excited to get to the “alto cita Perugia” area at the top of the hill.

This is our first day of distributing lunch money in Euros. We will test the lunch market in Perugia. To get from the bus area to the old city, we take steps and an escalator through catacomb like passages – old tunnels perhaps from ancient city walls. We see our first poster advertising our 1st concert here in Perugia, to be held at San Lorenzo cathedral. Everyone takes pictures of the poster in the glass case!

We emerge up at the old city. The main Corso will head straight to the San Lorenzo Cathedrale.

Students in smaller groups with chaperones are exploring the shops and pizza bistros. Outdoor seating at ristorantes lends itself to relaxed lunches for several student groups from ACO. My wife and I have fabulous pizza, then walk the narrow ancient streets with bridged archways of old homes. We get to an overlook that gives a view of valleys and mountains beyond, plus a view of the extension of the old city where the famed university lies. (Lots of students are in Perugia… a major part of its population).

We have a deadline to rendezvous with the buses so we can all check in to our hotel, rest a bit, and change into our concert outfits, then head back for the sound check. Our hotel is called the Choco Hotel… and has sculptures of chocolate in the lobby – the lobby actually smells like chocolate! (Perugia is famous for it!).

We get back on the buses at 6:45 and head to the church for the 1st load-in of instruments and stands. Let’s see how smoothly our organization can run!

We get inside the church…it is HUGE with a sound-echo delay of over 6 seconds! This will be a challenge for the concert! We work hard to set up the orchestra–Chaperone Margaret especially–in charge of the seating! Holly gets the music out; the percussionists are setting up; the stage crew led so nobly by Brian Ewing, Mike Franchetti and Darren Lynch is madly at work to get the basses and cellos in as well as the timpani… our 1st taste of loading in and setting up in a timely manner.

I decide that chamber music will definitely be a part of our evening: brass and percussion in front of the church will begin at 8:30 pm (it’s still light out then) and inside will be woodwind quintet and finally Bruckner’s Ave Maria, sung by 10 students. We will set up our banners to help promote this 1st concert.

First, in our sound check, we try our music… the echo time delay is HUGE to deal with! I tell the students that fermati will be long, to let sound die away as much as possible. As concert time gets closer I tell the chamber music outside to start, while I busy myself trying to find a bathroom. Alas, there is ONE bathroom in the entire church available for 117 musicians… the line is long!

I put my scores in order as the final strains of Ave Maria waft towards the back of the church. The Bruckner Ave Maria in that huge acoustic sounds INCREDIBLE. What a heavenly way to introduce the orchestra concert!image

The crowd is not huge, but decent for such a small town. My wife and I met a couple from New Jersey earlier in the day, looking at our poster. They are there. About 150-200 people are in the seats to enjoy the concert. A few of the rowdy students on the church steps enter to listen a bit, But John Feenan, one of our tough Philly cops is there to encourage quiet listening or scram!

The concert commences with Berlioz and William Tell, but we have to omit Danse Bacchanale. No drunken bacchanals in a church setting! We replace it with Verdi’s Nabucco. The trombone choir and resulting ultra-long grand pauses are laughable in their length, to let the sound die away! I am very pleased how the orchestra is playing in such an acoustic — a bit lighter, less heavy, shorter sounds, and off the string — really listening in such a bath of an acoustic.

We get to the middle of our program – Copland’s Lincoln Portrait in Italian with Councilwoman Teresa Severini as the narrator. As no rehearsal time was available with her, I quietly tell her to look for my hand cue to BEGIN speaking, and when I touch her arm, she should STOP speaking… We understand each other, (though my Italian is barely understandable to her, I realize). Before we start the piece, she reads the entire narration for the audience… something, though not asked for, that makes sense for the Italian listeners to grasp the importance of the words. Before she gets up to start narrating in the actual performance, she is visibly moved by the powerful music and the playing. Amazingly, although she gets ahead a bit, she stretches out the final words to coincide with the powerful music. Her ending monologue/dialogue with the orchestra is excellent. Not bad for no rehearsal!

Joe Conyers’ subsequent Lyric for Strings in such an acoustic is velvety smooth and PERFECT. We finish the concert with Tchaikovsky, Finlandia (with HUGELY LONG GRAND PAUSES), and Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. But as we are to start La Forza, I see no score… I look for Holly, but she is buried in the back of the church, and she can’t find the score when she is asked… I shrug and jump into the overture and whisper to the students to me help get through the overture with no score!! Hmmm….it works… I remember all the main cues…. (I should try this more often without a score!!) Then we launch into 3 encores: Cinema Paradiso, West Side Story and finally Mambo, which ends up being the weirdest experience in such an acoustic – a mish mash of sound, but we finish it with a flourish and are done!

First concert thrillingly over… audience adores it… Councilwoman Severini makes a heartfelt speech, first in Italian then English. She is very moved at the end of the concert, congratulates us during the standing ovation, and then deliveries a beautiful gift of exquisite poster photos of Perugia to both Joe and me. We are moved by her warmth. Audience members introduce themselves… some Italian, some American Italians visiting – all very moved.

Now… after the thrill of having the concert go so well, we have a big pack-up to do. We finish in 30 minutes and walk back to our buses. One of the cellists slips on the cobble stone street and twists an ankle. Rebecca, our nurse, is there to wrap his ankle up, and we all make it back to our “choco” hotel… The entire orchestra is famished, so we order 50 pizzas to share as a bedtime “snack”. We then are off to our beds to rest up for concert #2 … in Assisi!!

Conductor’s Journal: Italy, Day Three

[The third of eleven installments of Maestro Liuzzi’s journal, originally posted by Josh Yarden at, July 27th, 2015]


All City Orchestra Italy Tour 2015

by Don Liuzzi

Day Three, June 22nd – Still in Rome
There had been talk and many inquiries about a potential brief performance for the Pope, but the Philadelphia organizing
committee coming to be received by the Pope in preparation for his September visit has not yet arrived, and the Pope is off to Milan that day. We stick with our itinerary of visiting the Vatican Museum and St. Peters

imageWe break into 3 guided groups… the Vatican Museum is jammed, but we eventually wind our way to the Sistine Chapel, after a lovely stroll through the Vatican garden square. In the Sistine Chapel we hear our first of many incantations of “Silencio… Silence!” We are supposed to stay quiet and soak in the religious art with solemnity – and rightfully so. What a feat, all those frescoes and ceiling art, so exquisitely painted by Michelangelo

Our next guided foray is into St Peters Cathedral, the center of the Catholic Church. Finished in the 1500’s, it truly is magnificent, from the Pieta of Michelangelo, to the massive space of St. Peters filled with light. No Gothic architecture here! We are reminded by our guide of the special Doors that will open this December for a special year of forgiveness. We all may need all the forgiveness we can get on this crazy earth!


The students visit a large shop of Catholic tourist items. My wife, Gretchen, buys two magnets with Pope Francis giving a thumbs up. (We aren’t Catholic but we like this Pope!) We gather in the center of the plaza in front of St. Peters for a full Orchestra photo. (Photographer Vanessa is doing her job well!) We bus back to the hotel in time for lunch… this time pork and a risotto… some students swim a bit before we board the buses again to tour the Colosseum.

What a structure and reminder of the ancient games the Romans provided for their citizens. The underground labyrinth of tunnels and corridors where the animals and gladiators were housed is a gruesome reminder of the Roman past. The melody from the film Gladiator is gliding through my head as we walk the levels of the Colosseum.


We eventually gather on to the buses again to get back for dinner and another rehearsal. In some ways this rehearsal is more difficult. The students seem even more tired. (They say the 2nd day in Europe is worse for jet lag.) We work on Copland with Italian words spoken by Yaelle and finish with a run of both Bernsteins. (What a great composer!) It was another good and needed rehearsal… from 8:15-10:30. Joe took the beginning of the rehearsal with Walker’s Lyric for Strings, before doing the Copland works. I remind everyone that we are about to have 5 concerts in a row in 5 different cities. Sleep is essential!

We run into our 1st challenge packing up the equipment truck before heading to bed. Fitting all the basses, celli, percussion and trombones into the equipment truck is proving very difficult. A debate ensues, which ends in a compromise. We will have to put some celli in buses while some celli are precariously riding in the truck and might be damaged on bumpy roads. I remind everyone that, believe it or not, Italian roads are much better than Philly winter ravaged roads!

We come up with a better plan for the rest of the tour. We will rent a 2nd van van to carry the excess instruments, only from Perugia to Montecatini, just one extra day of an extra van, not 4 expensive days. We finally head to bed at midnight. With room check completed, everybody sleeps like babies, some with Roman dreams, some with Copland or Bernstein dancing in their heads! (at least mine).

Conductor’s Journal: Italy, Day Two

[The second of eleven installments of Maestro Liuzzi’s journal, originally posted by Josh Yarden at, July 26th, 2015]

All City Orchestra Italy Tour 2015

by Don Liuzzi

June 21st: We Arrive in Italy
After 8 and half hours of sleep, meals, and movies – lots of them — we land in sunny Rome. The weather is gorgeous. The previous day’s rain has cleared the air and made everything fresh for our arrival. The airport is mobbed with incoming tourists. Our travel guides Teresa and Yaelle greet us as we come out of baggage claim and customs. We all get an apple, a water bottle and head to our buses – and very nice buses they are! They will be our traveling homes for the next 9 days!

A variety of pines and poplar trees line the land scape as we bus our way in to Rome. We are heading straight for the Colosseum and the Roman Forum to walk the ancient Roman roads, and see the ancient arches of Constantine, and Titus.


After winding our way through the Forum we imagine that mortals roamed these Roman street thousands of years back – what commerce, what deals, what city life, what Roman triumphal parades marched through these ancient arches.

We are getting hungry after an hour of our guided tour in the dry heat of the noon sun. We are constantly reminded to stay close in groups… Russ and John – our Philly cop chaperones are on the lookout to keep the groups together.

We tiredly enter a restaurant, fill their basement tables and chow down some pasta dishes topped off by a vanilla/chocolate “gelato” cup. The real gelato is yet to come.

I hear news of the first medical issue. One student is not well, but hangs in there through lunch. We send her to the bus after the lunch to spare her the walk to the Pantheon. Half of the students are drooped with their heads on the tables by the end of lunch. We better get moving before we all fall asleep!

We march in our groups through Roman neighborhoods, past the Trevi Fountains that are under re-construction… no refreshing spray there! (I remember feeling the wonderful spray of the fountains on a very hot day, my last time in Rome.) No need today, the air temperature is in the low to mid 80’s and not humid – unlike Philly!


We eventually arrive at one of my favorite Roman sites – the 10th century wonder of a church called the Pantheon. The open circle in the grand domed ceiling always casts a beam of light to some corner of the church depending on the angle of the sun. What a marvel, this ancient church. I am the last one out as we head to Piazza Navona. All the students spread out to check out all the painters and illustrators, or to hang by the beautiful fountains, or buy their first real gelato.

After 30 minutes, we head back to our buses for the ride to the hotel. The Parco Tirreno is pleasant enough… The pool will be a nice place to relax after two very long days. A few swim, but the schedule is tight. We are to rehearse from 5:30-7PM. There is talk of no rehearsal, but I will have none of it… We came to play and play well.

Though the students are tired, we gather in the basement conference room – a modern space with curved walls and very lively acoustics, which is good practice for the cathedrals where we will perform.


We work through a fine rehearsal of Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso, then on to Verdi’s La Forza. We take it apart and put it back together again. I am proud of the students for their work ethic after such a busy two days of travel and sightseeing. We eat at 7:30 – more pasta and some chicken. Before room-check, I coach the percussion section a bit for their chamber work, Little Rhumba, which will end up being an important contribution to the chamber music we will perform at each concert location. Everybody is beat.

9:30 – Room-check… Not a peep from anyone… All sleep well!

Start by Changing a Kid

[Originally posted by Josh Yarden at, July 25th, 2015]

Q & A with Joseph Conyers and Vinny Luciano, a master and an apprentice. 

There was certainly no lack of nice, interesting and talented people on the All City Italy Tour. Almost every conversation turned into a worthwhile discovery. Here’s one story that really goes to the heart of what All City is all about.

imageI had an opportunity to have breakfast with Joseph Conyers, Asst. Principal Bass of the Philadelphia Orchestra and All City Music Director Designate, and Vincent (Vinny) Luciano, an All City alum from CAPA (Creative and Performing Arts), currently majoring in bass performance at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance. Vinny is in Mr. Conyers’ bass studio at Temple, but their connection began while Vinny was still in high school.

Q: Vinny, what did All City offer you as a high school student?

A: First thing, you get out of your own school and play with kids from all over the city. You learn not to take anything for granted. Performing at the Kimmel Center was really inspiring, sitting and playing on the same stage where the Philadelphia Orchestra plays.

Q: How did you come to take lessons with a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra?

A: I was in All City from my freshman year, and I participated in the WaBass program at the Curtis Institute. Some of the students at Wabass were really great and inspiring. I took one lesson with Joe there, and then met him again when I was a junior. I approached him after he taught a master class at CAPA, and I said, “I know you’re really busy, but do you have time to take on another student?”

Q: Was that a difficult request to make?

imageA: I’m pretty shy one-on-one, so I was very nervous about asking, but I really wanted to take lessons.

Q: Joe, how did you decide to take on another student?

A: I knew Vinny wasn’t taking regular lessons, and having heard him play, I saw a lot of potential.

Q: How do you detect that?

A: Initiative, enthusiasm… Drive.

Joe paused to think for a moment before answering, and I realized that what he didn’t say was as important as what he did. He didn’t say anything about measuring talent or ability with any sort of standardized playing test. I followed up.

Q: How do you know when you are listening to a diamond in the rough?

A: You can see when someone is trying to make musical gestures, striving… that sparkle in the eye.

Q: What do you do, Joe, if a student doesn’t turn out to have what it takes?

A: I’m pretty direct. I’m pretty busy, with no time for baby sitting… I always give people many chances, and there have been close calls, but I’ve never dropped a student, because they eventually rise to the level of the high bar I set for them.

Q: What if they can’t reach the bar?

A: I’m thinking about my students wanting to get a job. That’s the end game, and I know what it’s going to take to get there. The student has to be aware. Otherwise they’re on cloud nine and they’ll show up unprepared for an audition. I sit behind the screen at blind auditions, and when I hear someone who wasn’t properly prepared, I sometimes want them to go back to where they studied and ask for their money back!   There is a level of musical understanding that should be brought to the table at every audition, and I expect at least that minimum level of understanding to be exhibited by all of my students.

The story of Vinny’s path from being a shy freshman at CAPA, hoping to learn to play the base, to becoming a musician and a freshman at Temple University majoring in bass performance offers an important lesson, and it’s not just a music lesson. It’s a life lesson as well: If you really want something, don’t just wish you had it. Reach out and ask for it. Then prove you deserve it. 

All City invites high school students into a world of advanced musicianship where they have an opportunity to pursue excellence. Of course, becoming a musician is not for everyone. As the members of the orchestra experiment with their natural talent and discover their potential to become musicians, they also learn that they can apply this dedication to the pursuit of any dream. 

As Joseph Conyers put it: “Start by changing a kid, then a family, then a community. You can literally change the world.”

Q: Joe, what is it like to take on the leadership of All City in addition to being a musician in the Philadelphia Orchestra and the director of Project 440?

A: I’ve been in the field for 10 years as a professional musician. I love playing, and I love teaching, and this is a good move for me professionally. I’m still discovering aspects of the music and aspects about myself, after 23 years of playing the bass. I know that music can help kids look inside themselves.

One thing Project 440 pushes is using music as a tool for service. It offers education and beauty as well as leadership building, by sending the students out into their community as ambassadors for music, striving for excellence, offering inspiration for their peers, so they see what someone can achieve.

I know that not all the students are going to become professional musicians, but I want them to discover what it means to strive for greatness. There is so much talent in Philadelphia. This is the public school system, the heart and soul of the city. I love the fact that we can celebrate their achievements and encourage them to keep discovering.