“Trombones, I want you to make me lose more hair than I’ve already lost,” said Don Liuzzi while rehearsing the young musicians of the All City Orchestra through a piece from Hector Berlioz’s “Damnation of Faust.” “I want those bells in my face.”
Philadelphia’s All City Orchestra, a youth ensemble made up of 117 teenagers from 10 area high schools, will travel through Italy next week to play a five-city tour. For the last 10 years he has been music director, it has been Liuzzi’s dream to take them on the road.
“I don’t care if it was in Bucks County or the Poconos, just getting the group to play outside of Philadelphia,” said Liuzzi, whose day job is principal timpanist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “Any orchestra — even the Philadelphia Orchestra — when you leave home base and play for another group of people, something happens. You have to learn how to subjugate even more your own ego and really work with the group.”
The ensemble will travel through the towns of Perugia, Assisi, Montecatini, Massa, ending up in Florence. The trip came together in less than four months. After the orchestra’s final scheduled concert in March, Liuzzi discovered a spot had opened up in the Festival Orchestre Giovanili, a youth festival in Florence. He scrambled to raise $500,000 so the families would not have to pay anything for the trip.
“A few families gave to the Indiegogo campaign, but nobody else is paying,” said Liuzzi. “That was a goal of mine.”
It’s not uncommon for a youth orchestra from the more well-heeled suburban schools to travel abroad. Liuzzi, who sits on the board of the Youth Orchestra of Bucks County, wanted to give the same opportunity to inner-city teenagers.
“I’ve heard audiences there are more receptive than the U.S.,” said Dotan Yarden, 16, about audiences in Europe. He’s a bassoonist from Philadelphia’s High School of Creative and Performing Arts. “That’s what pushes you to perform in the next piece, is how the audience receives the previous one. I’m looking forward to eruptions of applause as we move into the next piece.”
To pass the time between performances, Yarden and some of this fellow musicians have been practicing hacky sack. “We made the All City Hacky Sack Team.”
The orchestra is peppered with a few All City alumni, who have been through the program and are now studying music at the college level. Tayana Woodton, 19, played with the orchestra since middle school and now studies cello at Mansfield University, in northern Pennsylvania, near the New York border.
“I’m looking forward to the food, ” said Woodson, who grew up in South Philadelphia. “Being able to experience actual Italian food as opposed to Americanized Italian food.”
The program includes works by Verdi, Berlioz, Rossini, and American composers George Walker and Aaron Copeland, including “Portrait of Lincoln” narrated in Italian. But more than impress the Italians, Liuzzi hopes the tour will bond the kids with each other.
“There are CAPA kids, Central kids, Masterman, [Benjamin] Rush — they have groups, and they are friendly, but one of my goals is to have a sense of unity and get beyond our labels,” said Liuzzi. “What school, what family, what race: really let all those things go and play for another audience. That experience can really be life-changing.”
Liuzzi says this ensemble is the best he has had during his 10-year tenure as music director. This tour will be his finale: he is stepping down and passing the baton to his Philadelphia Orchestra colleague, bassist Joseph Conyers.
The All City Orchestra plays the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall Thursday at 7:30 p.m.