By REBECCA ISENHART
SARATOGA SPRINGS — A small string ensemble in Saratoga Springs got a lot more worldly during its 2013-2014 season. The Saratoga Springs Youth Orchestra (SSYO), an audition-only group that includes several young Niskayuna musicians, wrapped up its busy performance schedule with a trip to Italy to participate in a music festival and see the sights.
Mary Cowans, Niskayuna resident and SSYO board president, said the group was one of just three from the United States invited to play at the annual Festival Orchestre Giovanili. They sent a recording of their music to the organizers as an audition and were selected for their mature sound.
“If you heard them play you would not know that it was young people,” Cowans said. “They blend very well and perform at what I would consider a very high standard.
“There were orchestras from all over the world that participate in the festival, mostly European since it’s easier for them to get to Italy,” she said.
There are 20 musicians in the orchestra, but almost twice that many people made the trip to Italy, including family members and chaperones. Cowans also manages the orchestra, and once they received their invitation to perform in the Italian festival, she began planning routes to the three festival concerts, as well as additional stops for fun.
The group showcased its skill at the Cathedral di San Lorenzo in Perugia, a city known for its chocolate. Then, the group played at the Loggia dei Lanzi, an open-air sculpture gallery on Florence’s Piazza Della Signoria. They wrapped up with a show at the Tettuccio Spa in Monticatini Terme, a city with a history not unlike Saratoga Springs: It is known for restorative spas, baths, and mineral water.
For a total of nine days, they took buses through the Italian countryside, visited Florence, Milan, and Rome, took in the cultural artifacts around the country and, of course, ate lots of excellent food.
Niskayuna’s Malini Balan, 18, plays the violin in the orchestra. The trip was an exciting landmark for the young musician, who will attend New York University in the fall as a music major.
“I think probably my favorite part was when we got to play in Florence,” Balan said. “We were in the Loggia [dei Lanzi] right next to the re-creation of the Statue of David. I think it was the biggest audience I’ve ever played in front of.”
She guessed there were 500 to 600 people there, mostly Italian.
Away from the spotlight, Balan said the part of the trip that really moved her was a visit to a master violin craftswoman who makes instruments in the style of the Stradavari family. Originally crafted in the 17th and 18th century, Stradavarius violins are considered some of the finest ever made. During the visit, Balan had the opportunity to play one of the craftswoman’s creations.
“I don’t know what playing an old masterpiece feels like, but it was amazing ,” she said. “The way the sound came out so effortlessly was incredible.”
Cowans said she hopes to repeat the trip in a year or two.
Earlier this year the group touched another part of the globe by participating in a tribute concert for Japanese tsunami musicians at Carnegie Hall in New York City. There, they worked with famous violinist Sumiko Tajihi. Experiences like these make the many hours of hard work and practice worth it for the group’s young musicians.
“It was quite difficult, but we pulled it off!” Cowans said. “Now we’re feeling very good about ourselves.”
For more information about SSYO, go to ssyo.org. For information about auditioning to become a member of SSYO for the 2014-15 season, call 573-2403. Auditions will be held for musicians ages 13-25 in September.