When pandemic safety precautions forced the South Jersey Youth Orchestra from its traditional home at a Bellmawr church, director Amy Patton Weckesser brought the group to her mom’s Haddonfield lawn to rehearse.
By Matt Skoufalos | June 29, 2021
It’s just about sunset on a muggy June evening in Haddonfield, and from the corner of West End and West Euclid Avenues, orchestral music begins to fill the air.
To passersby, it’s an unexpected accompaniment to the typical twilight hours, but in the neighborhood, it’s become a familiar backdrop throughout the past year.
What’s less common is the source of the sounds: the South Jersey Youth Orchestra and Friends, a 40-piece ensemble of musicians hailing from towns as far-flung as Mount Laurel and Williamstown, and as close by as Haddon Township and Audubon.
In preparation for its summer concert, the group is rehearsing the first and fourth movements of Brahms’ First Symphony in C Minor, string arrangements of Robert Kerr’s “Fantasy on Simple Gifts,” and selections from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.”
Huddled on the front lawn of violinist Lenora Patton, whose daughter Amy Patton Weckesser leads them through the changes, the orchestra has pressed on in this fashion since May 2020, driven out of doors by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The idea to run through the tunes outside her family home was born out of necessity, Weckesser said, after the group was no longer able to safely gather within the Immanuel Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Bellmawr, which has been its home for 30 years.
One early option, an orchestra member’s family barn in Woodstown, was great for performances, but a little too far away for twice-weekly rehearsals. The next best thing was the Patton home in Haddonfield.
“We realized pretty early on that people wanted to continue, but they couldn’t make it to the farm all the time,” Weckesser said.
“My mom’s 90, which is one of the reasons we decided to take it to her. She sits up on the porch and plays the viola with us.”
The broad range of ages among the performers in the group is one of its strengths, Weckesser said.
Instrumentalists younger than 10 rehearse alongside musicians in their 80s, gaining wisdom and coaching from their elders, who are in turn invigorated to play with a new generation of performers.
“I try to tell people it’s the best way to go because music doesn’t have an age,” Weckesser said.
“They work together, they make music together. It’s an amazing group.”
For Weckesser, the pandemic the latest wrinkle in the 30-year history of the organization she helped found among a group of homeschooled musicians back in 1992.
The daughter of former Haddonfield Middle School music teacher Tom Patton and his wife, Lenora (also a talented violinist), Weckesser boasts an impressive performance resume, having toured with acts like The Moody Blues, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Frank Sinatra Jr., Jimmy Roselli, and Donna Summer.
She grew the orchestra from among her students, and then supplemented it with adult players at the suggestion of her dad, “who added the ‘and friends’” to the orchestra’s name, Weckesser said.
The late Tom Patton also helped her curate its repertoire based on the skills its players needed to develop. When the kids needed to sharpen their pizzicato (string plucking), they selected Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, which places the technique on full display in its third movement.
“We don’t pick easy stuff,” Weckesser said. “We want them to rise to the challenge.”
For all the rigor of its program, however, the orchestra is a come-one-come-all program. No auditions are held, and players of every ability are welcome to join.
“We just make room for everybody,” Weckesser said. “You’re welcome, and we will fit you in. The sooner kids start, the more they like it, because other kids are doing it.”
The orchestra typically delivers performances around Memorial Day and Thanksgiving, with spring and fall rehearsals leading up to them, and a summer camp in July. Weckesser is still setting her schedule up for the 2021 season, but expects to continue the weekly practices at her mom’s home for the foreseeable future.
“We haven’t had one complaint [from the neighbors],” she said. “Everybody’s been very supportive.”
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Weckesser also hopes that the opportunity for young musicians to hone their chops in a positive environment will also inspire them to continue playing to see where their talents can take them.
Her own journey with the violin began at age four; by the time she was in junior high, her guidance counselor blanched at the notion of making a career of it. Not long after that, Weckesser was playing in the Musical Christmas Tree show at The Gallery mall in Philadelphia when she was poached by Smokey Robinson’s string arranger.
“He literally needed a player that night and said, ‘Want to play a gig?’” Weckesser remembers. “From there I joined Paul Anka and Barry White. I was very lucky; it was so much fun. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“I tell my kids, ‘Find something that you love,’” Weckesser said; “leave time to do something that you can look forward to.”
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