“It’s been pandemonious,” says Basil Vendryes, nonchalantly coining a new word as he describes his busy schedule. Since 1993 he's been the principal violist of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra; he performs and records as a soloist; he teaches at such programs as the Lamont School of Music, the Castleman Quartet Program and and the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival. Right now, though, he’s fully focused on the upcoming concerts celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of the musical program he founded and directs, the Colorado Young Sinfonia.
For promising instrumentalists, there's a gap between the early rigors of learning and the practical realities of becoming a professional musician, he points out. The Sinfonia helps talented young players who need the discipline, practice and experience of making music on a professional level; the 28 members range in age from 14 to 22. And the Sinfonia itself fits right in that range.
“We have managed to survive, to keep the doors open, if you will,” says Vendryes. “We keep our costs to a minimum; the dues are small; the concerts are free.
“It’s not about money; it’s about service," he continues. "I wanted to give something back to my students. We fill a niche that typical youth orchestras don’t fill, as a string or chamber orchestra. When you have an orchestra with wind and brass, your programming will address that complement – you must find pieces that will utilize those players. But you miss a lot of important musical literature that way. So, players get experience with pieces they would play more rarely.
“Most important, it gives the players a chance to be heard. You’re among fourteen violins, not forty, and it creates a positive pressure, I hope, that promotes excellence. And gives me a chance to help them develop a rich, warm sound without having to break away and work with the winds. In return, it gives me a very close-knit, no-nonsense group of players. That seriousness of purpose is something I enjoy very much.”
So much so that Vendryes is currently on sabbatical from the Colorado Symphony, which he says reduces his work week to a manageable fifty or sixty hours. “I am getting more quality time with the viola,” he says, “but I still have more than enough on my plate, whether it’s in the studio, being on the stage or conducting. I do find myself coming back home in the evenings more than previously, which is wonderful.”
But right now the focus is on a pair of Sinfonia anniversary concerts, the first set for Valentine's Day. The program consists of four lyrical, twentieth-century pieces: two robust, more formal works — Warlock’s Capriol Suite and Bloch’s Concerto Grosso #1 — bracket two deeply felt, mournful works – Howells’s Elegy for Viola, String Quartet and Strings and Paulus’s Veil of Tears.
“Programs that have flow are attractive to me,” says Vendryes. “In times of sadness or discontent, we think of pieces such as the Barber Adagio or the Elgar Adagietto, but here are some very affecting works that folks have never heard of before, much less heard.”
How Vendryes came to program the Howells piece is a story in itself.
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“I was at a garage sale,” he says, “and I found it. It was free! And I thought, this might come in handy one day, so I took it home and put it with my other scores. About a year or so ago, I was going through Facebook, and I found someone playing that piece. I stopped to listen. I thought, what a beautiful piece! Well, someone else had posted more info about it, and I found the soloist, and conductor, and asked them where they got the parts.... And I’m hunting through my stacks, and I find the Howells piece. And it’s the complete orchestra set!”
Finding a musical treasure in the trash and eventually bringing it back to life defines what Basil Vendryes is all about. He makes the music, and he passes the gift along — this month, with two free concerts.
“When we go back and play at the Denver School of the Arts, it will be taking the orchestra back to where we began," Vendryes says. "We know the hall, and we’ll have alumni there – it will make for a nice homecoming.”
The Colorado Young Sinfonia celebrates its fifteenth anniversary with a concert at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, February 14, at the Lakewood United Methodist Church, 1390 Brentwood Street in Lakewood, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, February 21, at the Denver School for the Arts, 7111 Montview Boulevard. Find more information at coloradoyoungsinfonia.org.