Recognition from the Illinois Council of Orchestras (ICO) bodes well for student musicians in and around greater Elgin. Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra (EYSO) received two awards from the ICO through its annual awards program recognizing orchestras, conductors, and volunteers that have demonstrated exceptional achievement.
“We’re honored and thrilled to receive this Programming of the Year award,” said Matthew Sheppard, EYSO artistic director and conductor of its flagship Youth Symphony. “It’s a testament to the outstanding work that our team does in crafting innovative and inspiring programs—and concerts that teach—for our students and their families.”
Separately, ICO named Sheppard as Community/Small Orchestra Conductor of the Year, for his work at EYSO and in the broader community. The 2022 ICO Awards are based on achievements of the 2020-21 season.
Each year, EYSO artistic staff chooses a season theme around which they build a comprehensive curriculum to help students develop artistically and technically. This is part of the EYSO approach to preparing students for a future of complex ideas, creative risk-taking, and leadership as global citizens. An EYSO season comprises three full cycles of concert repertoire for 300 student musicians, where each student shines as a contributing musician of their respective EYSO orchestra, and for many, as a member of a smaller wind, string, or percussion chamber ensemble.
EYSO’s 45th Season, Myths & Legends, was exceptionally relevant in a year when student musicians faced challenges cutting across all facets of life, and when making sense of their world was both more daunting and more critical than ever before. The season theme and the creative programming engaged and challenged student musicians artistically and served as lenses through which they deepened and broadened their understanding of themselves, of their communities, and of their roles in these communities.
Sheppard steadily and confidently led EYSO through the unpredictable and ever-changing 2020-21 season. He developed a flexible, modular approach to in-person student rehearsals at Elgin Community College, where EYSO is an in-residence ensemble. This allowed EYSO to offer a full season of in-person music education. He then worked with conductors and staff to identify and select repertoire that worked within this context while supporting the season theme.
“During the pandemic, the theme of Myths & Legends allowed me and my colleagues to let our minds wander through endless possibilities of the world in a time where we were confined by the scary reality that was the first year of battling Covid-19,” said Youth Symphony violinist Cate Winsor. “Being able to escape from reality was incredibly meaningful to all of us. Tapping in with our creative mind was something that kept EYSO propelling forward.”
Programming for the 2020-2021 season Myths & Legends was diverse, wide-ranging, and challenging for EYSO students. Youth Symphony, EYSO’s flagship orchestra, offered a riveting performance of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. Philharmonia, EYSO’s advanced orchestra for middle/high school players, studied core repertoire such as Franz Joseph Haydn’s The Creation and novel works including trailblazing composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Othello Suite. Prelude, a string orchestra, gave a moving performance of the African American spiritual Deep River arranged by Carrie Lane Gruselle. EYSO’s beginner string students joined advanced string players in a delightful side-by-side performance—and the world premiere—of When My Buddy’s Burdens Get Done, composed specifically for that year’s students by EYSO Composer-in-Residence Ethan T. Parcell.
The final concert of the year was titled Heroes, and it celebrated and recognized that heroes come in all shapes and sizes—that some move quietly through their everyday lives, all the while turning ordinary into extraordinary. EYSO saluted local heroes with a video presentation during the virtual concert intermission. Innovative musical choices for the Heroes concert included Phillip Glass’ Symphony No. 4 “Heroes,” Libby Larsen’s Fanfare for Humanity, and Paul Whear’s Lest We Forget.
Under Sheppard’s artistic leadership, EYSO implemented an initiative for each ensemble to program more works by underrepresented composers. In the first season of the initiative, the number of works by underrepresented composers went from four in the 2019-20 season to more than 20 in the 2020-21 season. EYSO continues to take this initiative to new heights, and diverse offerings have become a signature component of its programming.
Sheppard began his tenure with EYSO in 2016 as associate conductor of Youth Symphony and was elevated to his current position in 2019. He oversees eight large ensembles, a thriving Chamber Music Institute, and a conducting staff of eight. His leadership as a music educator extends beyond EYSO, too: he is highly engaged with the broader community of music educators in Chicagoland and continues to deepen and broaden these connections through his roles as Elgin Symphony Orchestra educational conductor and as a committee member of Illinois Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance (IL CMP). This, combined with his regular and consistent engagement with music educators at all levels throughout the region, shows creative and educational leadership beyond the EYSO community.
The mission of EYSO is to create a community of young musicians, enriching their lives and the lives of their families, schools, communities and beyond, through the study and performance of excellent music.
Since its beginnings as a small string orchestra in 1976, EYSO has grown to a community of eight large ensembles and nearly thirty chamber music ensembles. EYSO, in its 46th season, serves students from 70 Chicagoland communities and has a national reputation for providing students with an engaging musical experience and a comprehensive learning environment of curiosity, imagination, critical thinking, and collaboration. Students explore a thematic curriculum each season — one which helps students develop artistically and technically, and prepares them for a future of complex ideas, creative risk-taking, and leadership as global citizens. This approach has led hundreds of alumni to successful careers as professional musicians, educators, and strong leaders in every field.
To learn more visit EYSO.org, or call (847) 841-7700.