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Touring in the Shadow of Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse


Preston Hawes, 31, became the director of the New England Youth Ensemble at Washington Adventist University after its founder and long-time director Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse passed away last August at age 88.

Hawes is a violinist and conductor, and earned his bachelors in music from WAU in 2004. He holds a masters in performance from Yale University, and is working toward his doctorate at the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University.

He started playing with the NEYE when he was just 15 years old.

Question: The New England Youth Ensemble and Columbia Collegiate Chorale recently returned from a summer trip to South Africa. This was your first major tour as director of the NEYE since Dr. Rittenhouse passed away last summer. How do you think things went? What do you think she would say about the tour?

Answer: This was actually my second tour as director. I took the orchestra to Thailand several years ago when Dr. Rittenhouse was unable to travel. While we were honored to play for the Princess of Thailand, the tour wasn’t as extensive as we were only gone 15 days. On this South African tour we played well over 25 concerts and were gone for four weeks.

Dr. Rittenhouse began the initial inquiries into this tour before she passed away. And there was a great amount of interest expressed by the Adventist circles in South Africa in a potential tour. She had also initiated a relationship with ADRA in order to travel under its auspices and help with its causes in South Africa. Essentially, in late January 2012 after making the decision to go I began working with Peter Lombard of Insouciance Abroad to develop these contacts and relationships to create a tour in Virginia-Gene’s memory.

As a whole, this tour went very well. We had a younger orchestra than usual in that I took fewer alumni and more current members and potential members. This was partly strategic, but also partly out of necessity. It’s not that we didn’t want alumni to travel, it was just that very few alumni were able to commit to such a long tour. This younger orchestra really stepped up to the challenging repertoire, but even more impressive was their collective attitude about the strains of such a long tour.

Our bus driver even commented at the end of the tour how he was hoping to find a way out of such a tiring tour with so many young “kids,” but then after the first couple days realized how much fun he was having. He indicated he’d not been to church for many years, but that after hearing all the laughter, singing, prayers, and worship thoughts on the bus rides he would come listen to us in church. He actually became one of our most faithful audience members – often racing back from parking the bus blocks away just so he wouldn’t miss too much.

And it’s because of this sort of collective spirit and mission the NEYE exemplified on this tour that I think Dr. Rittenhouse would have loved this tour. But secondly, she was eagerly looking forward to returning “home” where she loved meeting the people of South Africa in just about any context. We had school concerts, church concerts, hospital concerts, and formal concerts. In several of our church concerts in predominantly black communities, after we played our concert the congregation would share traditional African music with us, singing in the most beautiful harmonies with such vigor and joy. I think, without a doubt, these concerts would have been Virginia-Gene’s favorites. They were certainly some of mine!

Question: There were two busloads of musicians, right? How many people were on tour altogether?

Answer: Yes! Two very full busloads. There were approximately 95 in total. If I remember right, about 50 in the orchestra and 40 in the choir and about five administrative personnel.

And what sort of NEYE tour would it have been without a bus breaking down right before our departure back home? We were about 1.5 hours into a seven-hour trip having just departed Kruger National Park when suddenly steam started pouring out of the poor overloaded orchestra bus. Alarms and lights on the dashboard started going off like crazy. I was convinced we were going to miss our flight. But, once again God saw us through and somehow found us a convenient factory parking lot in which to park both busses, and a sympathetic factory owner who sent his workers scurrying to every parts shop within five kilometers. Well, within 45 minutes a mechanic had been located who also happened to have the exact part needed to fix the bus. All in this tiny little town in the middle of nowhere! We actually ended up using our time to repack the bags a little bit to spread out the weight for the flights so we wouldn’t get charged so many fees. It was a real blessing in disguise I think, and a lesson in faith.

Question: How was the planning process for the tour different without Dr. Rittenhouse? Did you find that she did things you never realized? Was it easier in some ways?

Answer: I tend to delegate more than Dr. Rittenhouse did. Being a doctoral student myself, as well as a full time faculty member, as well as running things with the New England Symphonic Ensemble up in New York City, as well as maintaining an active and busy concert schedule, I just don’t find I’m able to do everything she did on her own. I had a wonderful group of students who did so much.

Planning was easier in some ways, in that when Dr. Rittenhouse planned a tour, she planned the tour and controlled every aspect of it from start to finish. I would often find myself having to make organized sense of something I’d had little information about in helping with her tours. This time I was in a position to see something through myself and have the contextual information to really understand how to organize the business end of things. I think this was one of the first tours where we didn’t go into the red financially at the end of the tour. Close, but not quite! God really blessed us in this regard and sent us so many wonderful sponsors whom I’m still trying to individually thank. 

Question: What was the best thing about the tour?

Answer: A couple of emails from some students who said their lives were changed through this tour. That’s what all the work was for, and is by far the most satisfying thing about any tour. I believe that inspiring positive change in the lives of others through the medium of music also changes us. That’s what the NEYE is all about. 

Question: What was the worst, or most disappointing, thing?

Answer: Well, my passport was lost/stolen in a series of unfortunate mishaps at the very last concert. (It drove off on top of a car.) That was frustrating. Also one student did take quite ill quite and the decision was made that it was best to send the student home. Thankfully our medical volunteers were on hand to step in and help.

Question: Any funny stories from the tour you could share?

Answer: Oh, countless stories. However, I think seeing [choir director] Dr. Bingham participate in a Sabbath game of Charades and march into the room pretending to be a Roman centurion rates pretty high on funny moments. Also funny – for the students at least – was the massive cockroach that first ran between my feet and then over Dr. Bingham’s shoes during a rehearsal in Durban, thus effectively removing us both from leadership momentarily. The students were more than a little confused as to what could cause two grown men to move so quickly. I really didn’t know what it was at first – it was so large, I thought it would take my chair out right from under me.

Question: It sounds like this tour had many similarities with past NEYE tours, including lost passports, late concerts, sick musicians and so forth. How did you feel the tour was different or similar than past tours?

Answer: Yes, the lost passport and sick musicians were not the best moments of the tour. And I already told you about the bus breaking down, but actually I don’t think we were late for any concerts. This was a first for the NEYE. We did have to cancel a concert because of some scheduling issues, but other than that we were really quite organized and prepared for the concerts! That might have been the biggest difference.

Question: How did the concerts go? Was there a concert highlight? I understand audiences were poor.

Answer: By and large the concerts were very successful musically. I think a musical highlight was performing in Durban where the cathedral had such stunning acoustics. It could also be because it was almost completely empty, due to an advertising snafu. The audiences by and large were very good at our Adventist venues and at the schools we visited. However, it remains a bit of a mystery to me how to effectively advertise in South Africa to entice a proper audience to a community concert. It was a learning experience in that regard.

Question: What were the most important things Dr. Rittenhouse taught you about organizing a tour? Are you continuing her philosophy of orchestra tours? Are you squeezing in as many concerts as she always tried to do, or are you allowing more time for sightseeing?

Answer: The most important things she taught me were persistence and oversight. Be sure to follow up and do so persistently. I think I also learned some things not to do, such as backtrack for a 10-hour bus ride for a single concert. I’ve had to learn to say “no” when it comes to these sorts of things. Sometimes, no matter how enticing a concert might be, it’s better to say no.

Virginia-Gene’s philosophy on tour was to cram in as much as possible. Sometimes even I felt as though I just couldn’t wait for tour to end. I want tour participants leaving tour abuzz about the next tour and wanting more.

On this trip we played lots of concert to be sure! But we also had lots of time for sightseeing. Typically we would try to go for an intense three or four days followed by one or two days of sightseeing. This seemed to keep morale high and keep people a bit better rested, which makes for better music making, I think.

Question: The NEYE has its favorite pieces, which have been played for many, many concerts. Are you sticking to those pieces, or are you introducing more variety into the repertoire?

Answer: We are introducing new repertoire while still keeping some of the old favorites.  Dr. Rittenhouse was a genius at reading an audience and creating an exciting experience for them, so I would be unwise to just toss aside repertoire just because it’s been played before. However, I do have to take into consideration the education of the music students as well as their interest level.

Question: I understand money raised on the tour was to go to ADRA South Africa. How much money did you raise? Was the fundraising successful?

Answer: I was initially convinced that the orchestra was not going to be able to raise the funds to go. “The fundraising budget was set for $125,000 with an additional $25,000 from the coffers of the NEYE. So the entire budget was around $150,000. It was only after the prompting of several alumni that I decided to take a cue from Dr. Rittenhouse and step out in faith and make the decision to go on tour. Within a month, we had only $20,000 left to raise to meet our minimum goal!

That said, I cannot go without publicly thanking some of our most significant supporters: ADRA International, Washington Adventist University, The Rittenhouse Family Trust, MidAmerica Productions, The Columbia Union, Nirmala and Vimala Abraham, Hanson Place SDA Church in Brooklyn NY, Triadelphia SDA Church in MD, Ephesus SDA Church in NYC, and the Ohio Union were so integral in their support of this tour that it would not have happened without each one of them.  

However, the most amount of money raised was via the participants themselves: nearly $70,000. I set a goal for each participant to raise $1,650 each. Some didn’t quite make that goal, while others exceeded it, and I’m very proud of their efforts. I encouraged each one to have their families, work colleagues, and church congregations personally invested in the success of this tour. I believe that involving the community at this level means the entire community can take responsibility for and pride in the success of such a massive venture.

I’m emboldened by the show of support for the NEYE. It is my goal to one day be able to offer a full tour scholarship to each touring member, and I know it’s possible if this sort of support grows. I’d love to see sustained giving be a part of each alumnus’ investment in their NEYE. I calculated recently that a conservative estimate of NEYE alumni in the North America is somewhere around 600-800. If even half of those alumni committed to a dollar a day in an effort to establish a significant endowment, within five years this dream would come true. That is my goal.

Question: Looking ahead, what are the orchestra’s biggest challenges right now? What plans are you working on for next year?

Answer: Not to belabor the point, but finances are the biggest single challenge. Second is recruiting. I know Dr. Rittenhouse spent the majority of her time sniffing out extraordinarily talented musicians. She was such a musical giant that often this sort of talent just seemed to be drawn to her. I don’t ever claim to fill musical shoes such as hers and so my goal is to create a musical experience that, while remaining rigorous, inspires in each musician love of music as an agent of positive change to the world and to themselves.

And given our very advantageous association with Washington Adventist University, one can actually make the decision to become a career musician. While the New England Youth Ensembles remains an independent non-profit 501c3 we are of course very closely associated with WAU, which means we can offer not only wonderful touring opportunities to students, but an entire music degree. And through the Carnegie Scholars Program of the NEYE our qualified musicians are able to augment their orchestral studies by performing in Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, and Alice Tully Hall at least five times a year. Here at three of the world’s most famous venues NEYE Carnegie Scholars are placed in a professional setting, next to a mentor musicians who guide them from the downbeat of the first rehearsal to the final cut off of the concert.

I dropped out of music conservatory in NYC in order to join this program, and it’s only gotten better since my years in it. My plans are to continue recruiting great talent into this fantastic and unique program, expanding it further, and of course continuing with tour plans.  

However, for this next summer I’m very seriously contemplating a music festival to be held at WAU. Being a Canadian citizen soon to be seeking a permanent resident status it is conceivable I may be US-bound for a year or so in the process, and I think a music festival would be a great way to collaborate with our sister schools and academies, as well as our surrounding community. I would like to see a festival grow into something where the festival orchestra rehearses here for two weeks, presents a series of concerts, and then goes off on a tour.

Question: You mentioned that the NEYE has its own 501c status. What does this mean in your affiliation with Washington Adventist University? Does the orchestra do all of its own fundraising?

Answer: This association with WAU is really very symbiotic. We provide the university with rigorous orchestral experience for the Music Department students as well as provide the university with an in-house resource for service music and recruitment.

In turn we are provided with a wonderful and welcoming home where we can rehearse, practice, and plan our functions that will of course also benefit the university in terms of exposure and advertising.

In terms of fundraising, donors have many options. They can donate to the university directly, stipulating the funds go toward the NEYE. These funds essentially belong then to the NEYE for functions that provide a mutual benefit to the ensemble and the university.

Of course, anyone can still make a tax-deductible donation directly to the NEYE by writing to

Question: The NEYE moved to WAU (then CUC) in 1994, after leaving Atlantic Union College, and has generally been seen as a separate entity from the university, just in residence there. Is this how the current WAU administration also views the NEYE? Are there any tensions in your relationship? Will you continue to be affiliated with WAU? Any chance of eventually going elsewhere, or no longer being affiliated with an Adventist college at all? 

Answer: While staying an independent identity is extremely important to the NEYE and to its functions, the ensemble very much enjoys being a part of the WAU family. The administration have been very supportive and are as much a part of the NEYE successes as ever. I think that the NEYE has found the support network here that it needs to flourish and to be content.

Question: WAU’s new music building was just completed this year and officially opened at alumni weekend in April. Does the orchestra now rehearse there? How do you like it?

Answer: We love it here! We rehearse here weekly and the students practice here daily. My teaching office is here as well, though the vast majority of my ensemble work is done from my home after work hours. We are thrilled with the new building! And we are also very happy to say that we are almost at capacity already. It’s what the Music Department at WAU really needed to flourish even more and it’s what the NEYE needed to grow as well. We can only hope that an adjoining concert hall might be in the near future.  

Question: Dr. Rittenhouse had a larger-than-life personality and in many ways she was the orchestra. How can you expect to fill her shoes?

Answer: I will never fill her shoes in that regard, and I really don’t think she meant me to. I really hope the alumni base doesn’t expect that of me either. I see myself as one of them – an alumna who has a passion for this orchestra and for its mission. I think I’m here for as long as God sees fit and for as long as the alumni and other supporters continue to be the backbone to the success of this orchestra. I think that Dr. Rittenhouse succeeded in much of what she did because of her own tenacity and persistence, especially in her later years.

I would like to see the NEYE become a success not because of anything particular that I do, but because of the overall support it draws from the surrounding community, from its alumni, and from its current members. Moreover, I would like to see it be a success because God wants it to be successful, and I think He will accomplish that in His own way with this new generation of leaders and supporters as He did with Dr. Rittenhouse.

Question: Do you have any time to spend on anything other than the orchestra? What do you do when you are not working in your role as NEYE director? What are your long-term goals for yourself?

Answer: Well, I balance being a doctoral student in the last throes of my degree along with my work at WAU (which in some ways does carry over with my work with the NEYE), and with my work up in NYC with the professional branch through which I run the Carnegie Scholars Program, and my own performance career.

I find that my youthful dreams of being only a soloist are really not applicable any more, and thankfully so because I love what I’m doing now. I feel I have my hands in all the interesting bits of being a musician while being able to bypass much of the dreary things like the constant unending lonely travel that many soloists experience.

However, I do try and make at least some time for myself now and then to go scuba diving, rock climbing, or backpacking.  I think of an amazing Alaska trip I took with some NEYE alums where none of us took a musical instrument – it was fantastic! 

In regard to long-term goals, really only God knows. I gave up trying to forge my way through life – endlessly trying to make things happen that I wanted to happen. I now simply set my sights on taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves and then seeing where God leads in that regard. It’s much more exciting that way and much less frustrating than when you feel like you have to give up on a dream that just isn’t happening for you. This way the possibilities are endless!

Read Spectrum‘s tribute to Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse, and find lots more information about the New England Youth Ensemble and its history, here.



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