January 14, 2009

The Molding of a Musical Mission

2009 1502 page14 caphirty-eight years ago in the living room of my New England home, I brought four of my very young, talented students together to play their musical instruments. My aspirations went no further than the hope of stimulating them to love great music and perhaps to play for the older folk at the Adventist church in South Lancaster, Massachusetts. From that small beginning eventually emerged what today is called the New England Youth Ensemble, an internationally renowned orchestra based on the campus of Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland, which has traveled to and performed in 43 countries throughout the world. As it turned out, God had far greater purposes for this organization than we would ever have dared to dream.

The Early Years
The first hint of a greater mission was revealed when the little group (now increased to 10 members) was invited to perform Christmas music for a Kiwanis Club luncheon in nearby Worcester. Dressed in Swiss costumes, the young musicians played with enthusiasm the music of Bach and Handel. My only hope was that they would get through without any major problems occurring, and that the audience would be entertained and pleased. But something unexpected occurred. As the men filed out of the auditorium following the concert, I noticed that many had tears in their eyes. Several said they had never been so touched by “young talents.” “You have restored my faith in American youth,” one man said. It was then the vision dawned on me that here indeed was the possibility of a great mission.
2009 1502 page14That was the beginning of what 
was to become the New England Youth Ensemble, whose motto—“Sharing God’s Love Through Great Music”—has taken us not only to many regions throughout the United States, but also to Canada, South Africa, China, Australia, England, Europe, Russia, South America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. The group has performed for former U.S. president Gerald Ford, former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, the president of Poland at the Villanow palace in Warsaw, and Queen Noor at the Jerash International Festival in Amman, Jordan. We’ve also performed at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris; the Windsor Castle in England; the Sydney Opera House in Australia; for national television in Beijing, China; and at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. All these, we believe, were a direct result of God’s providences.
Celebrating a Milestone
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of our performing a total of nearly 200 performances in Carnegie Hall, New York, under the auspices of MidAmerica Productions, headquartered in New York. World-renowned composer and conductor John Rutter of London, England, who has called the ensemble his “favorite orchestra,” has served as conductor for many of these performances.
Triumph Out of Calamity
Along with all the acclaim and success, however, the ensemble’s journey has not been without challenges. But in every trying circumstance—without exception—God has overruled and brought triumph out of calamity. Our most recent tour is an example.

The tour to seven European countries began with an invitation from MidAmerica Productions for the ensemble to play for the Aegean Festival in Greece. The performance was highly successful, with the audience responding very enthusiastically.
The ensemble then embarked on a ship going to Ephesus, Turkey, to view the amphitheater where Paul the apostle preached. But here began the difficulties.
The buses and drivers that were supposed to meet us at 3:00 that afternoon were delayed nearly eight hours. During our wait we met an archaeologist who told us she was very impressed with our young musicians and our current mission of raising funds for AIDS orphans. Through this woman’s influence, we have received invitations to perform in the great amphitheater where Paul preached—which is still in use—and for a concert in Istanbul. God turned a delay into a remarkable opening for an Adventist influence in Turkey.
We then proceeded on through Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, receiving a warm reception in each place, and moved on toward our final weekend in Salzburg, Austria. We had a tentative invitation to perform a sacred concert on the opening night of the famous International Music Festival at the great Dom Cathedral, but here again we began to encounter unexpected difficulties. Communication problems with the kapellmeister of the cathedral threatened to result in our concert being canceled, but we prayed and pressed on. The situation, however, went from bad to worse. The bus drivers got lost, and we drove aimlessly for hours. Suddenly we heard a grinding crash as the driver drove under a bridge, scraping the top of the bus. I prayed for a miracle.
Things Begin Looking Up
We finally dragged ourselves into Bogenhofen Adventist Seminary at 3:30 in the morning, exhausted and discouraged. Leaving the youth to rest, I contacted relatives of mine, Connie and David Drexler, who offered to drive me into Salzburg to try to salvage the situation.
2009 1502 page14The streets of Salzburg were packed with people. How will I ever be able to find the kapellmeister in the midst of such a crowd? I thought. But then the miracles began.
A receptionist at the cathedral heard my story and took me to the kapellmeister’s office. She then called him on the phone. The kapellmeister promised the concert would be held as planned.
The New England Youth Ensemble performed that evening in the Dom Cathedral to a packed audience of about 2,600 people—and the response was overwhelming. The concert closed on a final triumphant note with the ensemble, together with the cathedral choir, performing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” The standing ovation lasted almost 10 minutes. We climaxed the trip by playing at our own Adventist Salzburg church to an equally wonderful audience.
The tour—which could have been ruined by misfortune—ended instead on a note of triumph. This was evidence of how God can turn defeat into victory if we place everything in His hands and dedicate ourselves to the fulfillment of His mission. 

Virginia-Gene Rittenshouse is founder and director of the New England Youth Ensemble. She writes from Sterling, Massaschusetts.