In a spacious, well-lighted auditorium in Cleveland State University’s Music Building, two directors rest against seatbacks. Auditioning before them, 17-year-old Emma Edwards just finished the fluttering trills and crisp highs of Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto in E flat major.
“Nice job,” says faculty member Meghan Guegold as she twirls her pen. “You like that piece?”
“Yes,” Edwards says, brushing a foot against her shin. “My teacher picked it out.”
To Guegold’s right, Liza Grossman, the founder of the Contemporary Youth Orchestra, leans forward in her black top and camo pants to ask about Edwards’ extracurricular life. “I’m in jazz band, symphonic band and the leader of my 4-H Club,” says the Chagrin Falls student, “and I play the trumpet.”
“So, you’re busy,” Grossman says.
“Very busy,” Edwards asserts.
“Great,” Grossman says, making a note on her iPad. “We’ll talk again in September.” After Edwards exits, Grossman says, “I’m gonna take her. She wasn’t afraid to show personality through her music.”
Now in its 23rd season, Grossman’s Contemporary Youth Orchestra has grown to 115 members. Collaborations with major musical guest stars such as Melissa Etheridge and Styx’s Tommy Shaw have solidified it as one of the most vibrant contemporary youth orchestras in the country.
And that’s not all. This summer, Grossman hosted Apeek, a two-week camp full of master classes, rehearsals, a Cain Park performance and industry professionals from entertainment lawyers to yoga instructors. As she says, it allows “high school musicians to walk into [the professional world] without blinders.”
A lot like her students, Grossman loved music from an early age. A determined and absorbent teenage violinist and flutist, Grossman became the apprentice of conductor David Holland, the then-director of the Interlochen Arts Academy String Orchestra in Michigan.
“As a kid, you could just tell Liza was storing up ideas, strategies,” Holland says. “She had this crescendo of excitement.”
In her 20s, Grossman paired her obsession with meaty ’70s rock — Pink Floyd and Styx — with Holland’s classical-styled sense of a working musician. At 25, she graduated from CSU with degrees in violin performance and music education. She played gigs throughout Cleveland and taught privately. “I realized early on I needed to be on a podium,” she says.
With all of her savings, Grossman started the youth orchestra in 1995 at CSU. In 2001, she met with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Terry Stewart to pitch him an experiment she’d been mulling. She wanted to be the Rock Hall’s official youth orchestra and do it with rock idols. Stewart was sold.
In just a few months, Grossman was onstage with 65 students and the keyboardist from the Doors. “Here was Ray Manzarek, playing the Wurlitzer on ‘Light My Fire,’ ” Grossman recalls. “It was freaking phenomenal.”
From that initial breakthrough, Grossman and the youth orchestra blew up. Standards increased as more celebrities — Graham Nash, John Anderson and even Holland himself — played alongside Grossman. It’s why auditions are so formidable: Grossman’s orchestra is not just a spotlight, but a one-of-a-kind type of artistic nourishment.
In December, Edwards and the rest of the orchestra will present what they’ve learned with a “New Works” concert of Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts composer-in-residence Mason Bates’ The B-Sides.
“The door really is open to boundless creativity through the orchestra,” Grossman says after auditions that day. “Rock, jazz, turntable concerts — we can do anything. And style? Teaching ability? All that I hope is going to start here.”