Carter Simmons: 30 Years of ‘The Greatest Gift’ at MYSO

by Ron Oshima

For 30 years, Carter Simmons has been putting them all together for MYSO: the new mix of young people forming an ensemble at the start of each season—some returning, some joining the group for the first time, all with their own stories.

Reflecting on his anniversary which he and MYSO are celebrating this year, Simmons says the most important part of being Artistic and Music Director is “to be helpful to young people and to encourage them. That encouragement is often through a musical experience. That’s the medium we use to bond and grow together—as human beings, as an orchestra, and as a community.”

Under Simmons, MYSO has built a foundation of musical excellence—nurturing, challenging, and inspiring thousands of students through instruction and deeply relevant experiences.

Simmons credits “the world-class leadership and instruction of his colleagues and the visionary board who provide spirit and support” for everything MYSO has created during his tenure, among them: the Chamber Orchestra, John Downey Composition Program, Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, Progressions, Prelude Orchestra, Prelude Wind Ensemble, steel bands, Jazz Studies, and partnership in the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.

“The greatest gift that we can give to our community,” Simmons says, “is to help MYSO’s young people who come from different backgrounds and who have different dreams and aspirations to interact with and affect each other in positive ways, to heighten each other’s awareness, broaden each other’s horizons, and create more meaningful relationships.”

In getting his musicians to play as an ensemble, Simmons teaches them to be patient and learn from each other. He wants them to listen to each other and be supportive of each other’s sound.

“We talk about putting one sound inside the others’ sounds,” he says. “So if everybody is listening outside of themselves, not listening to themselves first, but listening to the other person first, the ensemble unifies immediately. And that makes everything better when we listen to other people first, right?”
Simmons sees the 2023 tour orchestra as a vivid example of what happens when the musicians find out who they all are, as players and as people. They complement each other to become something great, all through the wonderful and challenging compositions selected for the repertoire.

“We took a large, sophisticated set of musical pieces over to Europe to perform in three concerts in front of different kinds of European audiences, each worldly in their own ways,” he says. “I was thrilled to see the students engage in such a sincere way to make this as perfect as they possibly could. And present through it all was the orchestra’s musical excellence and youthful vigor—difficult to bottle and an absolute thrill to experience.”

The orchestra performed one concert in Belgium and two in the Netherlands in July. Each concert hall sounded different. Each concert was also different, Simmons says, because of the musicians’ excellent preparation and new friendships, which fed off each other.

Photo: Lauren Simmons

“The orchestra was deeply inspired by the music, and they knew their individual parts perfectly. They unified as musicians, and because they liked each other, too, there were new friendships formed almost every day before and during the tour. Since they were well-prepared and knew each other, they were comfortable interacting with their audiences. Each concert we performed was thrilling and unique and had its own vibrant patina,” he says.

The uniqueness of each concert brings to mind a Japanese phrase that describes the uniqueness of an act, even if repeated over time—ichi-go ichi-e. It is a cultural concept of cherishing the unrepeatable nature of a moment, even when the same group of people get together in the same place again. Each moment is always a once-in-a-lifetime-experience.

On our tours, MYSO strives to give young musicians the experience of playing in world-class concert halls—whether it’s the Musikverein in Vienna, Austria (2012 and 2015), the Palau de la Musica in Valencia, Spain (1997), or Carnegie Hall in New York (1994). But the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam— where many great composers have led orchestras, and where one of the world’s finest orchestras performs—holds a special place in Simmons’s heart.

“What was unbelievably fun for us is that the Dutch were so inviting and wonderful to us,” Simmons says. “They just embraced this orchestra in such a sincere way.”

As for the concert hall, it was more than the beauty and grandeur of the Royal Concertgebouw that blew everyone away, Simmons says. It was also the “bloom of sound in the room that’s unique to it. I’ve not been in a room before that sounded like that.” Ichi-go ichi-e.

Thank you, Mr. Simmons, for your dedication all these years in encouraging our musicians to find their voice, and to help them work together as human beings first and foremost.

You can recognize Carter Simmons on his 30th anniversary—and support our student musicians—with a gift to MYSO in his honor at myso.org.

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