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Empire State Youth Orchestra 40TH Birthday Season Culminated with a Three-Night Digital Festival and the Virtual Premiere of Ágreda’s “Ay Caray” for Virtual Orchestra.

Schenectady, NY -- The Empire State Youth Orchestra, known regionally and nationally for challenging and inspiring young people to engage in a joyful pursuit of musical excellence, announced that the orchestra's 40th birthday season culminated in a digital festival featuring thirteen ensembles and over 400 young musicians from around the region. The three-night digital festival streamed online on Facebook Watch and YouTube nightly at 7:00 PM, beginning Thursday, June 11 through Saturday, June 13, 2020. The festival's title, "Sounding Together," comes from the root meaning of the word “symphony.”

The Sounding Together Digital Festival was a first-of-a-kind performance for ESYO and a direct result of the orchestra's commitment to playing through New York's COVID-19 pause. "This festival is a celebration of learning and a testament to the resiliency of our young music-makers," said Rebecca Calos, ESYO’s executive director. "Like many schools and orchestras across the country, we've been challenged to learn, rehearse, and perform, apart and online," she continued. "I'm so proud of the remarkable creativity of our musicians and the dedicated conductors and teaching artists that have inspired ESYO to keep playing."

The concept of "Sounding Together" started after a group of ESYO musicians and friends formed a virtual Jazz combo. Each member recorded their part at home using their cell phone, then ESYO musician Sam Hatfield mixed and produced the video. Similar projects occurred in Symphony Orchestra after Music Director Carlos Ágreda, who has also been actively making music online with colleagues across the country, challenged members of the orchestra to collaborate and perform chamber music together online. The “Sounding Together” Digital Festival featured many of the student-produced videos alongside virtual performances of all 13 ESYO ensembles and the virtual premiere of Ágreda's original composition, Ay Caray!

"It was a process, and it was challenging," said Ágreda. “The idea of synchronizing home performances in a grid-view video is not new, but we wanted to find a way to build an innovative virtual orchestra experience,” he continued. “What can we do that we wouldn’t be able to do if we were in person? How does a conductor fit in a virtual performance if he/she/they don’t have the musicians in front of them? That is how we came up with the idea of creating the first ever VR/360° orchestra”. With the help of Griffin Bengraff, a Digital Media Arts major at the College of St. Rose, Ágreda began reworking Ay Caray! into a composition for a virtual orchestra.

"For this project, we wanted to create a new virtual orchestra experience," said Bengraff. "In order to reflect the magnitude of a symphony orchestra, we adapted a traditional 180°degree orchestral layout into a new 360°degree space,” he continued. Using VR technology and spatial audio, Bengraff was able to create an immersive experience that places the audience in the center of the orchestra.

Festival highlights included ESYO's Wind Ensemble performing "Amazing Grace" with composer/arranger Jay Dawson; a quilted performance of "What a Wonderful World" by Concertino Strings; music by the Jazz and Percussion Ensembles; digital concerts by Concertino Winds and Brass; and at-home performances by members of CHIME, String Orchestra, and the Lois Lyman Concerto Competition winner William Lauricella and 2nd place finalist Elihu Conant-Haque. The festival also included Senior Spotlights to honor the ESYO Class of 2020, student reflections on playing through the pause, and dedications to front line healthcare heroes, first responders, and Capital Region teachers.

For a complete listing of festival concerts and information on how ESYO is playing through the pause, visit The Sounding Together Digital Festival is made possible by the generous support of the University at Albany Foundation and the Metlife Charitable Foundation.