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Good Conduct

Troy Peters is right in tune with Vermont's young musicians


Published December 15, 2004 at 8:26 p.m.

The sweeping strings and pizzicato plucks that mark the coda of Tchaikovsky's "Meditation" fill the rehearsal room of Elley-Long Music Center at St. Michael's College in Colchester. It's powerful stuff -- hard to believe the musicians performing the piece are only in high school. But music director and conductor Troy Peters knows how to bring out the best from the Vermont Youth Orchestra.

"Could you drag that section a bit more, make it a bit more schmaltzy?" he asks. On this Sunday afternoon, the VYO is rehearsing to perform on the Flynn MainStage as part of Burlington's First Night celebration. Peters is responsible for getting these young musicians ready for the show. Key to his formula for coaxing top-notch results from his charges is a willingness to act like a big kid. "I want you to watch me like crazy, and let me be ridiculous," he tells them with a playful smirk.

Since taking up the baton at the nonprofit, independent Vermont Youth Orchestra Association nine years ago, Peters has brought the organization to places that were unimagined when it was launched in 1963 -- to its permanent home at Elley-Long in 2001 and, this fall, the stage of Carnegie Hall. Participation doubled under his watch, from around 200 young musicians to 500 instrumentalists in five ensembles -- Youth Strings, Sinfonia, Philharmonia, Youth Chamber Winds and the Vermont Youth Orchestra. Peters conducts the Sinfonia and the VYO. The latter recently released a CD of their Carnegie concert, which featured works by Vermont composers David Gunn, Ernie Stires, Thomas L. Reid and Trey Anastasio. Their First Night performance will reprise some of that repertoire.

Peters, 35, is married and has a 7-month-old son. He recently added yet a new gig to his already full schedule. He was appointed conductor of the Middlebury College Orchestra.

His success doesn't surprise Stires. "He's a splendid conductor and great teacher," the Cornwall composer comments. Composer David Gunn describes Peters' dynamism in typically unconventional terms. "His energy levels suggest he's got a couple of extra organs," Gunn says.

Watching Peters in action is a bit like witnessing a boot camp exercise led by a stand-up comic. When the kids tackle a Mendelssohn number, he doesn't let anything slide. "Bassists, you're so far behind that you're playing Mendelssohn's 2nd Symphony while we're all playing the 5th." The kids laugh, but they get the message. When a photographer crawls around in the string section to snap some pics, Peters makes light of the intrusion. "Most of you are old pros at this media-whore thing," he says. "But if the cult you belong to believes that photographs steal your souls, be sure to tell him."

A well-dressed, stocky man with a neatly trimmed beard, Peters is not your stereotypical conductor: His slick-backed hair has no wild tufts, and there isn't a hint of dishevelment about him. He comes off as laid-back but focused, with an obvious love for his work. Talking one-on-one, he's amiable and open -- a natural communicator.

An American Navy brat born in Scotland, Peters spent his early years moving across the globe. The family finally settled down in Tacoma, Washington, when Troy was 8. Surprisingly, he didn't hear much music as a child. "My parents aren't musical, and they're not even really big music listeners," he says. "They like music, but the radio or records weren't on all the time when I was growing up. I really discovered music through public-school programs."

When he was in fourth grade, Troy picked up the viola -- still his primary instrument -- but he later spent time playing bass in rock bands. This might seem atypical for a student of classical music, but Peters doesn't recall a conflict. "When you're in a school that has string programs, it's not that unusual." Playing in the orchestra "isn't necessarily the coolest thing to do in school," he says, "but it's not a big deal."

Peters' first foray into conducting happened when he was just a kid. "One morning, when I was about 16, our conductor didn't show up for rehearsal," he recalls. "She had gotten in a car accident, and we sat there and goofed off for 10 minutes. Then we got bored. Somebody said, 'Why don't we play?' so I got up and tried to conduct, because it seemed like more fun than writing on the walls."

At Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, Peters received an intensive education in composition, but he was increasingly drawn to conducting, partly for practical reasons. "During my four years as an undergraduate I found I was getting more and more work as a conductor," he explains. "It's easier to get someone to pay you to conduct than it is to get them to pay you to write music." This wasn't the only reason, though. "The more I did it, the more I realized that I loved it more -- I was better at it than being a composer."

Instrumental training and composition are still integral parts of Peters' work. "I compose differently because I conduct," he says. "And I definitely conduct differently because I'm a composer. I think of a composer's intentions differently than most conductors I know. It's a big strength to me that I understand how a composer puts together a piece."

The discipline it takes to lead 100 musicians through complex rhythmic and harmonic notation can't be overstated; without a talented conductor at the helm, even history's greatest pieces are just black dots on paper. "You need two things to be a good conductor," Peters suggests. "You have to hear everything that's going on, and you have to have an idea of what you think the composer wants the music to sound like. There's no way to really know what Beethoven wanted -- he's been dead for almost 200 years. But you try to find the essence."

Theory aside, it's really about getting the kids psyched on the material. "One of the biggest joys in working with young musicians is that sense of discovery," he says. "They fall in love with this music. Think about when you were 16 or 17 years old -- how much music meant. In high school I remember playing The Clash's London Calling 'til the grooves were just gone. Because it changed my life. And I see that with the kids I work with here. They discover Mahler, they discover Tchaikovsky. It's just this totally life-changing thing."

Participating in such a large-scale, disciplined effort is a distinctive experience for the young players. "It's more than just four or five people in a band," Peters says. "You have 95 people realizing complex notation, and making it come to life. It's electric. That sense of what collective greatness feels like is a really powerful thing."

French horn player Rachel Pelham, 16, has been in the VYO for three years -- a veteran. "This is by far the best orchestra I've played in. We sound, I consider, pretty professional compared to other youth orchestras." How does Peters make that happen? "He's not afraid to insult someone. He can cajole us and make jokes, but he also knows what buttons to push to make us produce great things."

Peters knows how to push, but he also recognizes that there's more to his players' lives than rehearsals. "We need to understand our place in the bigger picture of adolescence," he says. "Sometimes when somebody shows up to rehearsal and they're not having a great day, it's not about how much they practiced or even about us. It could be that they just had their first breakup, you know? We try not to be another stress in those situations. But at the same time we say, 'You still have a commitment here -- you need to do what you can for your colleagues.'"

When it works, everyone enjoys the pay-off -- including the conductor. "It's definitely a rush," Peters says. "The more they come together, the more energy there is. I often have that feeling with the youth orchestra -- just a real sense of pride at how they're pulling it together."

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