Young but gifted
Why did Ben Parton audition for the prestigious National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America?
The 17-year-old violinist answered that question succinctly:
Late next month, Parton and talented musicians from across the country, aged 16 to 19, will gather at the State University of New York’s Purchase College, near New York City. There, professional musicians from top orchestras will train the young players for two weeks.
After a July 11 concert in Purchase, the National Youth Orchestra will embark on a tour that stops first at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and then at concert halls in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The tour concludes with a July 21 performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The group will return to the U.S. on July 23.
“I’m absolutely thrilled,” Parton said. “I really don’t know what to expect. I’ve never left the country, let alone been to New York, or anywhere. It’s going to be a huge adventure.”
Renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev will lead the orchestra, which will be accompanied on the tour by violinist Joshua Bell. He will play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. The group also will perform Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, as well as “Magiya,” a new work by American composer Sean Shepherd. “Magiya” was commissioned for the National Youth Orchestra.
This is the inaugural season for the orchestra, a program of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. Parton is one of just two Tennesseans who will participate this year. The other is tuba player John Paul Powers of Clinton.
Powers and Parton both perform with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s Youth Orchestra, Parton as concertmaster. Parton has been with the group about nine years.
As concertmaster, he assists the conductor and tunes the orchestra, among other duties.
At 7 p.m. on Monday, the Knoxville Youth Orchestra concludes its season with a performance at the Tennessee Theatre.
Parton began playing his instrument at age 5. “I picked up the violin from hearing my brother play,” he said.
“You know how brothers are,” said Parton’s father, Tony, a professional framer. “You don’t want the other one to outdo you.” Ben has two brothers and a sister. The family lives in Sevierville.
Tony recalled that when Ben studied violin as a young child, he was always pushing ahead to later weeks’ lessons. “He just didn’t like to be held back,” Tony said.
Ben studies music constantly, Tony said: “He couldn’t tell you the songs on the radio that the kids listen to, but he can tell you any classical song. That’s all he listens to.”
The young violinist has a mentor in Knoxville Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz. The two meet about once a month.
“He’s a very bright kid, and he’s very passionate about music,” Lefkowitz said. “He has very strong ideas about the music that he’s playing, and that’s not always the case for people in their teens.”
When Ben performs, “He’s not just playing notes,” Lefkowitz said. “He has ideas, already, of what he wants to be. For a young person to demonstrate he has an opinion about music and has something to say – that’s how you know you’re dealing with a musician with something there.”
Working with Gergieve in the National Youth Orchestra is an incredible opportunity for Ben, Lefkowitz said. “He’s getting to travel and meet talented musicians from other parts of the country. He’s going to have a lot of fun.”
Ben will especially benefit from working with other gifted young musicians, Lefkowitz noted. “Growing up in Knoxville,” he said, “if you’re one of the more talented people, you might have big-fish-small-pond syndrome. Once you see what else is out there, it’s a really inspiring experience.”
Like Ben, Lefkowitz performed with a youth orchestra, the Boston Youth Symphony. “It was nice being surrounded by other young people who loved classical music as much as I did,” he said.
Ben will finish his schooling next spring. After that, he would like to study music education and performance at a conservatory.
He envisions a career in music. Would he like, for example, to be a professional concertmaster, like Lefkowitz?
Said Ben, “That would be wonderful.”