Since its founding in 1969, the New England Youth Ensemble (NEYE) has won high acclaim in countless tours throughout the United States and the world. Under its professional name, the New England Symphonic Ensemble, it is a resident orchestra at Carnegie Hall, where it has performed more frequently than any other orchestra in the nation.1
Its founder and director – the driving force behind its success – was Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse (1922-2011), an accomplished violinist and pianist whose indomitable will turned her vision for the orchestra into reality. Hundreds of students have played in the ensemble and sung in choirs.
Rittenhouse, born in Canada, spent her childhood in South Africa, where her father, George E. Shankel, was president of Helderberg College. She was a performing and composing prodigy who, at age ten, debuted in a network broadcast, performing her own compositions. At age thirteen she won a scholarship for study at the University of South Africa in both piano and violin.
She started her career at Walla Walla College (now University) in the fall of 1945, a year after completing a music degree at the University of Washington. In 1946 she moved to Atlantic Union College (AUC) in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, where she taught violin and piano until the early 1950s. During that time she completed an M.Mus. at Boston University and married Harvey Rittenhouse, a surgeon and musician. She completed a DMA at Peabody Conservatory in 1963. The Rittenhouses worked in Jamaica from 1954-1956 and also in 1961, where he practiced medicine and she taught music. They returned to live in the community near AUC in 1964.2
Positive reactions to performances in and around South Lancaster by a small ensemble of Rittenhouse’s students led to an expanded group that, in December 1969, participated in a Christmas program at the First Unitarian Church in nearby Northboro, Massachusetts. In that same month, they also played for a Kiwanis Luncheon in Worcester, at the request of that community's orchestra director. During this time the group became known as the New England Youth Ensemble.
In 1970, they played at the General Conference session in Atlantic City, New Jersey. This exposure led to an invitation to play at the All-European Youth Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland, in July 1973. This was the first international trip for the ensemble, which now numbered 25 students, including the four children in the Taylor Family String quartet.
The ensemble played an important role in the Congress, held in Edinburgh's famous Usher Hall. They opened the event with the Trumpet Tune and Air, a rousing prelude that was followed by the entry of Scottish bagpipers and flag-bearing delegates. They performed ten more times during the four-day event and closed it with a final concert.
The ensemble then had a brief two-day stop in London, where they played in the New Gallery Center, an Adventist outreach center in that city, before crossing the channel into France. They next traveled to the Ecoles d'Art Américaines de Fontainebleau outside Paris, where they gave a concert for world-famous composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger and other teachers and students at the music school. This discerning group's enthusiastic response during and after their performance was affirmation at the highest level, an exciting end to this first venture abroad.
Triumph in Poland
In 1974, the Friendship Ambassadors,3 a cultural exchange program underwritten by the Reader’s Digest and its former editor, Harry Morgan, sponsored the NEYE in a tour of Poland. It began inauspiciously when, during their first week, there they were quartered in a woefully inadequate hostel and prevented from doing any performing by an interpreter and tour guide with an antipathy for Christians and a preference for jazz.
At the end of the week, Rittenhouse courageously approached officials in what was at that time a communist country and requested a new tour guide. Those associated with the program hastened to rectify the situation. They arranged for vastly improved lodging and assigned two new interpreters and guides, who scheduled seventeen memorable concerts for the group in the remaining two weeks of the tour. The orchestra was so well received that even before they left, they were told that a request had already been placed for them to return to the country.
When they did so a year later, assisted by a choral group conducted by Francisco de Araujo, they were placed under the oversight of the two guides who had salvaged the previous year's trip. Midway through this tour, they spent four days in Vienna sightseeing and playing during the 1975 General Conference session being held in that city.
They then resumed their itinerary in Poland where, by coincidence, U.S. President Gerald Ford and his wife were visiting while attending the Helsinki Conference in Finland. Last minute arrangements were made for the ensemble and choir to perform following the state dinner hosted by the president for the premier of Poland. The program was well received and the finale, America the Beautiful, stirred the audience with a powerful wave of emotion. Following the concert, while the ensemble members were putting away their instruments, President Ford returned unaccompanied to the room where they had performed to thank them personally both for their music and their representation of America's youth.
The NEYE returned to Europe in the following year, one of the first two groups chosen to enter the Soviet Union under the sponsorship of Friendship Ambassadors. Following five days in the Warsaw, Poland, area, they entered the USSR where they performed for twelve days. They ended the tour with a concert in historic Leningrad and then had an impromptu visit at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music. The Associated Press spread the word about this groundbreaking trip and Radio Moscow released tapes of the group's concerts for broadcast across the country.
Performing Throughout the World
During the remainder of the 1970s, the ensemble toured to the Caribbean several times and traveled to Canada, Austria, Romania, Israel, Hungary, France, and other countries in Europe, some of them multiple times. On those tours they performed in world famous venues, including Notre Dame and Chartres cathedrals in France; the Dom in Salzburg and the Karlskirche in Vienna; San Marco in Venice; as well as St. Martin-in-the-Fields and cathedrals at York, Leeds, and St. Giles in Great Britain.
They also traveled extensively in the United States, playing in such nationally noted places as the Riverside, St Patrick's, and St. Bartholomew's churches in New York City and the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. They later performed numerous times in the latter's Sunday morning telecast of the Hour of Power.
The pace established in that first decade of travel continued for over the next two decades and into the twenty-first century. In addition to crisscrossing the United States numerous times and performing several times in Canada, the ensemble and assisting choirs returned to the Middle East and to Poland, Russia, England, and other countries in Europe including those in Scandinavia. They also traveled to China and multiple times to South Africa and Australia and islands in the Pacific.4 And the tradition of playing at the church's General Conference sessions, begun in 1970, continued without break to 2010, when the NEYE performed in Atlanta, Georgia.
When asked by an interviewer in 2001 to single out a particularly memorable event, Rittenhouse, recalled being deeply moved by the response to a 1997 concert given as part of an evangelistic series to a crowd of 15,000 in a stadium at St. Petersburg, Russia. While there, she and the ensemble witnessed the baptisms of hundreds of persons.5
Beginning in 1975, when Araujo and the Takoma Chorale under his direction joined the ensemble for its second tour to Poland, choirs sometimes toured with the NEYE. James Bingham's symphonic choir from Kingsway College in Ontario, Canada was another that began accompanying the NEYE in the 1970s. Bingham and Rittenhouse worked well together, and in 1985, when Bingham became chair of the music program and choir director at AUC, where the NEYE was based, the two directors and their organizations began performing and touring together on a regular basis.6
In 1988, when Bingham's Collegiate Choir was invited to perform in Carnegie Hall as part of the Mid-America Productions program, Rittenhouse suggested they include the NEYE as the assisting orchestra. The reception for that concert in May 1988 led to an invitation for a return engagement in November.
The second concert featured violin soloist Lyndon Taylor and the choral music of noted English composer John Rutter, who prepared the choir and orchestra for the performance. The success of that venture led to an ongoing collaboration with the composer in subsequent concerts at Carnegie Hall and other venues as well as a concert tour in South Africa.7
The CUC-WAU Era
When both Rittenhouse and Bingham accepted positions at Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University) in 1994, the relocated NEYE joined with Bingham's CUC choral groups to continue touring and performing concerts.8
In May 2003, they presented a gala concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., featuring Rutter as guest conductor for two of his well-known and popular works, Gloria and Requiem. The program closed with Feel the Spirit, a recently composed medley of African-American spirituals featuring the choir and orchestra and mezzo-soprano soloist Sylvia Twine. The concert ended with a three-minute standing ovation.9
The use of soloists with the NEYE is a longstanding tradition that started in its earliest concerts. In addition to Sylvia Twine, recent vocal soloists have included Alex Henderson, a tenor who has appeared with the orchestra more than any other singer.
Instrumental soloists have been most often students from within the group. Once they demonstrated they were ready, they had to be prepared to play on short notice at any time on a tour, called upon at random by Rittenhouse, sometimes even in the middle of a concert. Many well-known Adventist musicians have started or were given a boost in their career as soloists while associated with the ensemble.
Violinists Lyndon Taylor, Carla Trynchuk, Lynelle Smith, Dawn Harmes, Naomi Burns Delafield, and Preston Hawes have all served as both concertmasters and soloists. Other soloists have included violists Lucy Taylor and Laurie Redmer (Minner) and pianists Eileen Hutchins and Jacquie Schafer (Zuill), the latter also serving as principal player in the second violin section.10
In March 2004, Bingham conducted the world premiere of The Vision of the Apocalypse, an oratorio composed by Rittenhouse, in Carnegie Hall. She narrated the presentation, a dramatization of “the Great Controversy” theme prominent in Adventist doctrine. The New England Symphonic Ensemble (professional branch of the NEYE), the CUC (now WAU) Columbia Collegiate Chorale, conducted by Bingham, and the Atlantic Union College Pro-Arts International Choir, conducted by Araujo combined forces for the performance.11
The Vision of the Apocalypse was a new oratorio on the same topic as a previous one, The Song of the Redeemed, that Rittenhouse had premiered in 1946, at the end of a year of teaching at Walla Walla College (now University). She had started writing portions of the earlier oratorio at age twelve, inspired by the book of Revelation.12 The destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001 moved Rittenhouse to complete another oratorio in a more contemporary idiom on this theme, a lifelong preoccupation with her.
The New England Symphonic Ensemble is now the official orchestra-in-residence at Carnegie Hall for Mid- America Productions. After Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse passed away in 2011, Preston Hawes, who had assisted her as concertmaster and associate conductor, became conductor.13
Fate, Billie Jean. “Musically Speaking” column, The Collegian, May 9, 1945.
“G. E. Shankel and Daughter to Join WWC Teaching Staff.” The Collegian, February 8, 1945.
Minchin-Comm, Dorothy and Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse. Encore: The Story of the New England Youth Ensemble (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1988).
“Oratorio Choir, Orchestra, Premier Song of the Redeemed.” The Collegian, May 2, 1946.
Shultz, Dan. "Columbia Union College at Kennedy Center." IAMA Notes, Summer/Autumn 2003.
Shultz, Dan. "Music at Atlantic Union College." IAMA Notes, Winter/Spring 2003.
Steed, Lincoln. “Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse: Dialogue with a musician with an up-tempo vision for Adventist education.” Dialogue 14, No. 3 (2002): 20-21.
Information in this article about the first twenty years of NEYE’s history is drawn from Dorothy Minchin-Comm and Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse, Encore: The Story of the New England Youth Ensemble (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1988).↩
“G. E. Shankel and Daughter to Join WWC Teaching Staff,” The Collegian, February 8, 1945, 1; Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse Life Sketch, printed program for Memorial Services, October 14 and 22, 2011; Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse, interview by author, September 24, 2003.↩
This program, originally the Ambassadors for Friendship, now the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation, started in 1973. The NEYE was one of the first ensembles chosen to participate in a program, which in subsequent years has sent hundreds of ensembles overseas, including a number of groups representing Seventh-day Adventist schools.↩
Lincoln Steed, "Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse: Dialogue with a musician with an up-tempo vision for Adventist education," Dialogue 14, No. 3 (2002): 20-21; Dan Shultz, "Music at Atlantic Union College," IAMA Notes, Winter/Spring 2003, 16; Dan Shultz, "Columbia Union College at Kennedy Center," IAMA Notes, Summer/Autumn 2003, 3-5.↩
Steed, “Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse.”↩
Shultz, "Music at Atlantic Union College," 16.↩
Ibid.; Steed, “Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse.”↩
James Bingham and Virginia Gene Rittenhouse, interviews by author, September 2003; James Bingham, email message to author, March 2009.↩
Shultz, "Columbia Union College at Kennedy Center," 3-5.↩
News note, IAMA Notes, Summer/Autumn 2004, 20.↩
“Oratorio Choir, Orchestra, Premier Song of the Redeemed,” The Collegian, May 2, 1946; Billie Jean Fate, “Musically Speaking” column, The Collegian, May 9, 1945.↩
Preston Hawes, email messages to author, 2008-2012; Jennifer Mae Barizo, “Her Music Continues,” ARH, December 8, 2011, 19-21.↩