- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2003

The D.C. Youth Orchestra Program of Washington is accustomed to living on the edge — financially, anyway — but its latest challenge has more than a few backers worried.

Only a few days remain until May 31, when the citywide instrumental music group has to make nonrefundable down payments on expenses for a working visit to Japan scheduled for June 28 to July 14.

The orchestra has budgeted expenses of $71,000, in addition to the $2,000 each of the 55 participants must raise for airfare. To date, nearly 50 students have met their goal, and the organization has collected $45,000 toward the greater total, thanks to a recent $15,000 donation from the Japan Commerce Association of Washington. Funds in hand have come from student efforts, as well as outside organizations.

None of these sums is large by comparison with professional orchestral needs, but DCYOP is a different kind of orchestra, especially in the way it manages to meet maximum demands with minimal resources while reaching out to the 750 students a year who take classes and perform under its aegis.

Operating without a home of its own, the program serves most students — one-third of whose families receive some form of public assistance — Saturday mornings in Coolidge High School in Northwest. The organization’s efforts were recognized most recently when it became one of 10 recipients of the 2002 Coming Up Taller Awards. The awards are given annually by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities to after-school arts programs that foster the creativity of young people. (The honor came with $10,000 that orchestra officials decided to put into its general coffers rather than spend on a specific project such as the tour.)

Unique in its goal of accepting all applicants of any ability in the Greater Washington area from age 4 to 19, the 43-year-old nonprofit musical education program has been making international concert tours since 1970. Hence, the organization is accustomed to deadline agonies, but the current trip is complicated by a slowed national economy and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) threat prominent in parts of Asia.

To date, no parent has asked that the trip be reconsidered, but Denise Watkins, whose cellist daughter is among those chosen for the venture, says she is getting questions.

“It’s a concern because [SARS] is out there,” says Mrs. Watkins, the parent committee chairwoman for the tour. “I tell everyone we are moving forth. Those are things we have no control over. … I have a cautiously optimistic positive view.”

Another complication is the fact that the orchestra took a similar overseas trip just last summer — to South Africa — and raising money so soon puts extra pressure on supporters. It was decided to break with tradition of traveling only every other year in order to participate in the 150th anniversary of the first official U.S. visit to Japan.

This year is different, too, since students are going to be staying with Japanese families instead of in hotels. Arrangements have been made through D.C. Youth Orchestra conductor Takao Kanayama, formerly assistant conductor of the National Symphony, who was born in Sagamihara in the province of Kanegawa, where the student group will perform.

Support has come from some unusual places in unusual ways. The tour’s first outside sponsor was Washington businessman Roy Pfautch, who spends much of the year in Japan. He gave $5,000 on behalf of what he calls the orchestra’s “all-inclusive” policies that “allow anyone to take part.”

“I think the Japanese will respond because they respect children’s efforts in this area,” he adds.

To help make her $2,000 goal, Erikka Watkins, 17, created a colorful pledge sheet similar to those that runners and cyclists use to get sponsors on behalf of charitable causes. Then she petitioned everyone she knew in her Brookland neighborhood and beyond to give at least $10. The sheet included the teen’s photo and gave her student ID number with spaces below for each person to sign. The Watkins’ family dentist, Dr. William Ebbs, gave her $200.

Supplementary funds have come from occasional invitations for the orchestra’s string quartet to perform at functions, such as a tea that the wife of District Council member Adrian Fenty hosts annually for what he calls his constituent fund.

“I don’t ever remember only one or two American youth orchestras coming through in all the years I was [in Japan], although Chicago has one that does some travel,” says Robin Berrington, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who worked in Japan for many years as cultural attache. He is a member of the orchestra’s board.

“When any orchestra tours, whether youth or National Symphony, everybody is a winner,” he says. “There is no substitute for playing to new and different audiences. Obviously, cultural exchange merit isn’t quantifiable. You tell by the look on the faces and the reactions you hear afterward. What kids pick up is we are all people with the same problems and concerns. We may speak a funny language and look different, but we are all members of the human race. That is important when you are growing up and are age 14 or 15.”

Mr. Berrington was among the orchestra’s enthusiasts who attended the group’s free public concert April 27 at the Lincoln Theatre to herald the tour in an early send-off gesture. Performers dressed formally in tuxedos and evening wear played Symphony No. 3 by Johannes Brahms and then a piece of Japanese music — their first experience with Eastern music — accompanied by the kimono-clad Toho Koto Society of Washington, an adult group. The Duke Ellington School Concert Choir joined them in the second half for Aleksandr Borodin’s “Polovetsian Dances.”

The touring orchestra members practice several hours every Saturday at Coolidge and will practice daily for 10 days before departure. No one wants to consider the possibility of not making the trip — unlikely since this never has happened in spite of many last-minute worries and especially with the outpouring of support they have garnered. However, kind words from the likes of Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser and Sen. James M. Jeffords, Vermont independent, both D.C. residents, only go so far toward those down payments.

“District high schools have a 40 percent dropout rate,” says Jackye Zimmerman, tour coordinator and mother of Stephanie, 15, a violinist and student at Washington International School.

“We have a 100 percent graduation rate, 99 percent of whom go on to college, often with scholarships,” she says, referring to DCYOP’s most skilled musicians.

“I’ve found people in this town really resonate with the idea of children going to another culture because it totally changes a child’s view of the world,” she says. “It will be a very hard two and a half weeks touring, learning, performing, with new food, new language and new roommates.”

“I’m excited — not nervous,” says violinist Peter Davidson, 16, of the District’s Northeast, a student at St. Stephen and Agnes School in Alexandria. Erikka Watkins is realistic, acknowledging that “customs and traditions are different there. It’s going to be a big shock, a total culture shock, even more than South Africa last year where people spoke English.”

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