All-City ensemble orchestrates a stirring send-off for its director

More than 400 students from the School District of Philadelphia's All-Philadelphia High School Music Festival performed onstage in Verizon Hall on March 2, 2015. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )

If there was a certain energy in the air Monday night at the Kimmel Center, it wasn't only to be found in triumphant Verdi or euphoric Saint-Saëns. More than 400 students from the School District of Philadelphia's All-Philadelphia High School Music Festival performed onstage in Verizon Hall, even as officials continued their work behind the scenes to reinvigorate the program.

The concert was a fond farewell to Don S. Liuzzi, the Philadelphia Orchestra timpanist who has been director of the All-City orchestra, as it is known, for the last decade. Liuzzi was a natural for the job, having played in the ensemble himself as a high school senior on both horn and percussion. (His mother was piano accompanist to the All-City chorus.)

Now Liuzzi, 55, is handing the baton to Joseph Conyers, the Philadelphia Orchestra assistant principal double bassist, who takes over next season and aims to eventually return the program to a school-year-round schedule from its current annual iteration.

No gold watch for Liuzzi. Instead, he was presented at the concert with a timpani head signed by his young orchestra.

Monday night, you could hear the fruits of Liuzzi's labors - two in particular. The two instrumental winners of the concerto competition he inaugurated performed: the polished Haocong Gu in the opening from Elgar's Cello Concerto, and the gloriously charismatic violist Kyran Littlejohn Jr. in a movement from the Hoffmeister Concerto in D.

Liuzzi has been both a musical presence and an administrative one, raising money from about 30 donors to help fund the program itself to meet a challenge grant from the Lenfest Foundation, as well as for the concerto competition, for private lessons, and to buy better instruments for students heading for college.

Conyers will take on all of this, plus other parts of the program. Though the contract between Conyers' Project 440 and the School District remains to be finalized, Frank Machos, the district's director of music education, said the school system would retain oversight. Meanwhile, Machos said, plans are being laid for an endowment campaign of $3.5 million to $5 million to fund the All-City program in perpetuity, as well as an additional $3 million to $5 million to refurbish instruments and replace acoustic pianos with digital instruments in the schools.

Monday night, a couple of hundred singers lined the seats above the All-City orchestra in Verdi's "Va, pensiero" from Nabucco, and, joined by concert band and their teachers, the "Triumphal March" from Aïda, both led by Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Earlier in the day, the conductor led orchestra and chorus in rehearsals, asking in encouraging tones for changes in dynamics and articulation from this gathering of musicians in Hollister joggers and swoosh-stamped sneakers.

"Trumpets, more sustained - think that you're singing the whole time," he told the students.

To the second violins, regarding a better way to think of the phrasing at rehearsal No. 27: "Like a wave, think of waves."

Memo to the horns, subject after-beats: "If it's too short, it sounds like a waltz."

In the concert, a wide range of abilities greeted Nézet-Séguin and the other conductors. The chorus, led by Dorina C. Morrow, was mighty in "Let the people praise thee, O God" by William Mathias; the concert band, conducted by Wesley J. Broadnax, was especially swinging in "Undertow" by John Mackey.

But Verdi had the last word. Fly, thought, on wings of gold, urges the opening of "Va, pensiero." Then the "Triumphal March" from the massive orchestra and singers sent the audience home buoyed by the thought that, especially where our children are concerned, bigger things really are possible. 215-854-5611