The founding Music Director of the Contemporary Youth Orchestra
and the tour conductor for the rock group Styx, Liza Grossman
got a heavy dose of all things orchestral while growing up in Detroit, where her parents regularly threw fundraising parties to try to keep the Motor City's orchestra alive.
Grossman, who’ll lead CYO as it plays the music to Pee-wee’s Big Holiday
at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 11, at Cleveland State University’s Waetjen Auditorium
, got her first taste of conducting when she was in second grade.
The symphony had come to her elementary school and asked for a volunteer who wanted give conducting a try. Grossman raised her hand the highest.
“None of us even knew what [conducting] was,” says Grossman one recent afternoon over coffee at the Heinen’s in downtown Cleveland. “I was chosen. I got up there and didn’t know what it was, and the conductor handed me his baton. I don’t remember the piece. I lifted my arms up, and there was this wall of sound. I went home and told my parents I wanted to play the violin.”
Grossman would eventually study with members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and attend high school at Interlochen Arts Academy boarding high school. She came to Cleveland to study with Erich Eichhorn, a Cleveland Orchestra violinist, who taught at Cleveland State University. After graduating in 1992, she hung around town, teaching at Rainey Institute and the Music Settlement. When Bernard Rands, a contemporary music and a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, gave her some of his compositions for a youth chamber orchestra featuring middle and high school students, she realized she finally found her calling.
“When I received the score from him, it was written in notation that I hadn't seen before, and he sat down with me and explained it to me," she says. "We went back and forth, so I could learn from him as well,” she says. “When it came time for the performance at Cleveland State, he suggested I run part of the performance and conduct a portion of it. Being naïve, I said I would do it, and I did. [At a reception afterward], he said, ‘You have an ability to hear and teach this music, and I think you should start an orchestra.’ I thought that was crazy.”
She describes the experience with Rands as “impactful” and “life altering.”
She recruited her father, a lawyer, to help her draft some bylaws, and she formed the Contemporary Youth Orchestra as a 501(c)(3).
When asked about the first season was like, she simply laughs and says, “We played anything I could get my hands on.” She says she searched high and low to find pieces that contemporary composers had written for middle and high school orchestras.
“I supported CYO out of my pocket for the first four years and begged students to be in three concerts a year,” she says.
The group had a major breakthrough when Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek performed with it in 2001 at the Rock Hall.
“I had heard a recording of Nigel Kennedy and the London Symphony doing a Doors concerto,” she says. “Santina Protopapa, who was the education manager for the Rock Hall at the time, contacted Ray [Manzarek] and invited him to come in to perform it with us. I thought my blinders were off before, but now I felt like barn doors were flipped backwards and no longer in existence.”
Since then, acts such as Styx, Graham Nash, Pat Benatar, Twenty One Pilots, Jon Anderson, Panic! At the Disco, Fall Out Boy, Coolio, Machine Gun Kelly, Bootsy Collins, Jefferson Starship and Weezer have performed with the group. The upcoming Pee-wee’s Big Holiday concert functions as the continuation of a Music & Its Industries series that Grossman started in 2006.
“The purpose of this series is to introduce my students to all the potential professions they could have,” she says. “We’ve done cartoons and films and brought in Emmy Award-winning cartoon composers from L.A. who ran workshops. It’s turned into such a cool series, and it’s so much fun to explore these different avenues and dig in deep. It’s not just a concert because we’re also learning about media and marketing and entertainment law and lighting and rehearsal etiquette. It’s a full experience the students get.”
The Pee-wee concert came to fruition after the Museum of Contemporary Art’s curator of public programming, Deidre McPherson, a former student of Grossman’s, wanted to get CYO involved with the recent exhibit featuring the artwork of Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh. Logistics didn’t work out but Grossman, who knew Mothersbaugh from a previous collaboration, still wanted to pursue a performance of his music for the Pee-wee film.
“These young musicians are the future ones who will do the recordings and engineer them and produce them,” she says. “What’s really cool is that these musicians are looking at the same scores and cues that the orchestra in L.A. used when they originally recorded the music for Pee-wee's Big Holiday. It’s a completely different type of experience for us because the orchestra just recorded the cues but never played it all the way through.”
Later this year, CYO will team up with rocker Melissa Etheridge and perform with her on June 7 at Severance Hall.
“Things just keep happening,” says Grossman. “I do have big plans and for the first time in 22 years, we have an executive director who is not me. There’s four of us now on staff, which is amazing to me. It’s this huge working board. It’s such an incredible team. We’ve had the same lighting director for the whole run who’s grown with us and understands what we want. It’s incredible to have this family. It’s mind boggling to think about it. The future looks great, and there’s really no stopping us. We can do whatever we want. There’s no kind of music that we can’t play. It’s an open plate, and we can fill it with whatever we want. I see us expanding educationally and growing into something bigger than just an orchestra.”