Jerry and Nancy Bidlack moved to the Lehigh Valley in the early 1970s because Jerry had been hired to teach in the music department at Lehigh University, where he founded and conducted the university orchestra. Jerry began receiving calls from the parents of high school instrumental students asking if they could join the Lehigh orchestra, to which he replied, “well, no, it’s for college students. They should join the local youth orchestra.” Well, apparently there wasn’t one….
After many similar requests from high school students to join the Lehigh orchestra, Nancy and Jerry reached out to local music teachers to get a better sense of the need for a youth orchestra in the area. The enthusiasm was there. Jerry secured space at Lehigh, Nancy reached out to her teaching and performing colleagues to spread the word, and they held auditions. The turn out was tremendous. Unlike many ensembles that have to start small and grow, there were enough qualified young instrumentalists auditioning to fill not just a full symphony orchestra, but a younger string orchestra to boot! Both groups are still going strong today as the Young People’s Philharmonic and the Junior String Philharmonic.
Fall of 1976 kicked off the first season of the Lehigh Valley’s first youth orchestra. Jerry conducted the symphony orchestra, and Nancy filled the role of General Manager. Initially, the group was known as The Greater Lehigh Valley Youth Symphony Orchestra. After a decade of success, the Bidlacks took steps to incorporate as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and renamed the organization The Young People’s Philharmonic of the Lehigh Valley in 1985. The Board of Directors, administrators and volunteers were, and still are, largely comprised of parents. As they graduate and mature, alumni have been returning to take on these positions as well.
For over 40 years, young musicians have come from all over the Lehigh Valley and Western New Jersey to audition for a seat in the orchestra. From the beginning, the orchestra has been a home to students of advanced instrumental study who want to engage with like minded peers. In a 1980 interview Nancy summed it up, “The kids like the experience of going further with their music. There are some school districts in the area who have no orchestra in the schools. This gives the more advanced students a chance to play more advanced repertoire.” In the high school group, Jerry made a practice of only programming original symphonic literature as opposed to arrangements, a practice that continues today.
For decades, the orchestras have performed their concerts in college and professional concert halls. Another staple of the program since the early days has been the school tours, where the orchestras spend the day performing assemblies for grades K-12. These concerts are meant to increase awareness and appreciation of classical music throughout the Lehigh Valley. In addition to these regular aspects of the musical program, each year brings unique collaborations and projects.
The YPP Chamber Player program grew out of a small project facilitated by Nancy Bidlack in the fall of 2012. Unable to play the cello or conduct due to the symptoms of ALS, Nancy was still able to coach small chamber groups in her home. When the Chamber Music Society of Bethlehem approached her with an invitation for students to perform on their concert series, Nancy arranged eight YPP and JSP students into two string quartets and coached them for an hour each week.
Sadly, Nancy passed away before the groups performed that year. However, the concerts were a success and student interest in chamber music continued. Chamber music helps young instrumentalists to excel in all their musical activities. In groups of four or five, under the guidance of an experienced coach, students learn to listen and react to each other on a more personal level, thereby cultivating advanced musical skills. Playing chamber music emphasises musicianship and community, two priorities we value.
The 2015-16 season marked the 40th anniversary of the founding of this Lehigh Valley youth orchestra, and we found many fun ways to celebrate that milestone. In December, we organized an alumni reunion, where YPP and JSP alumni were invited to return and read through a few symphonic favorites under Jerry’s baton. It was wonderful to see generations of alumni still so excited about the organization that meant so much to them in their formative years.
It was also during the 2015-16 season that, at the age of 84, Jerry Bidlack decided to step down from the directorship of the Young People’s Philharmonic. His four decades of service, along with the 40th anniversary of the organization, was marked by a celebration for the whole community. Alumna and professional cellist, Susannah Chapman, returned to perform a concerto with the students in the YPP and Mayor Robert J. Donchez declared March 12, 2016 Young People’s Philharmonic Day! Jerry continued to be involved with the Young People’s Philharmonic organization as Artistic Advisor until his death in September 2016.
In 2009, Kenneth Bean had joined the organization to work with the wind and brass students in the Young People’s Philharmonic. He then took over the direction of the Junior String Philharmonic in 2010, when Nancy Bidlack had to step down due to complications with her illness. The Philadelphia based trumpeter and conductor first met the Bidlacks in 1998 as a student at Kinhaven Music School in Vermont. Like many students, Kenneth found meaningful mentorship in the Bidlacks. Jerry was inspired by Kenneth’s passion for conducting and as their relationship grew, Jerry gave Kenneth guidance on the podium and offered him as many opportunities as he could.
Jerry expressed a wish for Kenneth to succeed his position with the orchestra and often asked him to substitute when Jerry was unable to conduct. When Jerry decided it was time to step down, he appointed Kenneth to the directorship of the Young People’s Philharmonic.
It was also then in 2015 that we welcomed Domenick Fiore, bassist and Suzuki pedagote, to the position of Junior String Philharmonic conductor. Domenick has been a friend and colleague of the Bidlacks for many years and is a wonderful addition to the Young People’s Philharmonic organization. Domenick has as joyful, lighthearted style that the young students enjoy and which brings about results. He has expressed his delight to be preserving a legacy.
In 2014 Jerry and Kenny began discussing the benefits of creating a large wind ensemble program for middle school age students. Although the Lehigh Valley has a rich Band heritage and many school band programs there has not been a regional youth band in the area for over 20 years.
Dr. Nancy Beitler, who first joined the organization in 2015 as a Chamber Players coach and who has vast experience in music education and youth band leadership, was offered the opportunity to research the feasibility of a youth ensemble for winds, brass, and percussion.
She took on the project with great zeal and in 2018 developed and assumed directorship of our newest program, the YPP Wind Symphony. The Wind Symphony offers wind, brass, and percussion players entering the 6th-9th grade an opportunity similar to the JSP that will enrich the Young People’s Philharmonic organization and build on the education these students receive in their school programs.
Although excellence has always been a part of the YPPLV objective, we equally value the pride, joy, and community we build by making music together. Students find friendships that carry on for decades after graduating from the orchestra. Although we are not necessarily in the business of creating career professionals, every year several graduating seniors go on to professional music study. Nearly all remain actively involved in music, be it performance in some respect or simply playing for the love of it.
“I have this incurable desire to get kids together to play music. Jerry and I could go out to a desert and start and orchestra.”
They’ll have this music with them for the rest of their lives.