Fit to flourish: New leader, new approaches guide Young Artists Philharmonic's next season

Music’s rebels didn’t always dress in black leather pants. Sometimes, they wore breeches and peg-legged trousers.

“Classical music, in particular, was shaped by very young people, prodigies,” says Greg Robbins, as he talks during a recent morning outside the First Congregational Church of Old Greenwich.

Revolutionaries such as 19th century composers Felix Mendelssohn of Germany and Franz Schubert of Austria pushed the needle ever further on classical music, with enduring masterpieces they created when they were just teenagers.

They were about the same age as some of the musicians who will be occupying the seats this season for the Young Artists Philharmonic, the group for which Robbins serves as executive director. The Greenwich resident is one of two voices this morning talking about where the organization is headed and the need to take a fresh look at the nearly 60-year-old organization.

“Every kid is a potential prodigy,” says Robbins, who also conducts the Young People’s Symphony, one of four performing groups within the organization. “We have to have an environment that does everything we can to find those talents and nurture them, because they are there.”

The group will rehearse at the church for the season, which begins next month after several days of auditions. The other voice this morning belongs to Benjamin Grow, a New York City musician and conductor, who was recently appointed the group’s conductor and music director.

“What is nice about this organization is … there are high-level opportunities for students regardless of what their future goals are,” he says, noting that the group performed in Carnegie Hall in New York City several years ago. “That is a really special experience for any musician.”

The 100 or so students who take part in the organization are a sliver of the 40,000 young musicians estimated to participate in more than 400 youth orchestras throughout the United States, according to the League of American Orchestras. For some, it is an opportunity to learn and appreciate music; for others, it is the first steps in their musical careers. Grow and Robbins partook of such opportunities themselves — playing trumpet and bass, respectively.

Grow comes to the organization having worked with young people and adults, including international youth ensembles and those at New York City’s School for Strings; various opera programs, including Chelsea Opera; and new music groups, such as Ensemble Échappé.

Robbins and Grow are both in their 30s, not so far from the students they are teaching — something shared by the coaches and instructors who fill out the staff at the organization.

“One of the many little things that led me to becoming a conductor was that I have an unhealthy addiction to learning other instruments,” Grow says, laughing. “I have a collection of different string instruments. A consort of recorders, a flute. I have two banjos, one of which I made from scratch. A piano keyboard. Two cornettos … a nose flute, a mouth harp. As elementary as my understanding may be with some of those instruments, it gives me a bit of an inroad to talk to students who are learning how to be comfortable on their own instruments.”

Robbins, meanwhile, who earned his master’s degree at the Yale School of Music, participated in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra in 2011, which brought musicians together from around the world. Grow and Robbins see opportunities to modernize the youth orchestra format, bringing smaller ensembles to venues around the area in addition to the more traditional concerts held during the year.

These days, students who emerge from the Young Artists Philharmonic, whether as aspiring professional musicians or those who have developed an appreciation and love for the music, enter a world where the genre is transforming. Orchestras large and small are experimenting with different ways to deliver the music, such as incorporating intricate three-dimensional effects (Philharmonia Orchestra of New York), or performing in unusual locations (San Francisco Symphony).

For years, classical musicians have been moving into bars, art spaces and homes in a back to the future moment — creating more salon-type performances — and revisiting concepts such as improvisation.

These innovations play to societal changes, including a more visual world with more personalized experiences. However, Grow notes the very practice of listening or playing these enduring classics has the ability to slow things down and bring people together for a shared experience.

That aspect of the group remains unchanged from its founding in 1959 by the late Salvatore Princiotti, a Juilliard-trained musician and educator who led it for 50 years. Christian Capocaccia took over when Princiotti retired in 2012. Grow is the third conductor of the program’s flagship ensemble, which gives the entire organization its name.

“You can take a deep breath and feel history washing over you,” Grow says of the experience of listening to classical music. “There is such a rich variety within the hundreds of years of music we have at our disposal. There truly is something for everybody and it can touch on the full spectrum of human expression and emotion. If we do our jobs correctly, the musicians will be able to come to the rehearsal and have a bit of downtime even as they are being challenged, too. It’s a few hours a week where you are not bothered by the familiar trappings of everyday life. It transports you to another time and place.”

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