Reminiscing About New England Youth Ensemble Tours

2020 is a year that has slowed travel, especially international travel, down to a trickle. Instead of planning business trips and international conferences and exotic holidays, we are all glued to Zoom, with everything from board meetings to boot camps to family reunions taking place onscreen. 

Instead of hiking in Torres del Paine, we are watching National Geographic videos about Patagonia. Instead of attending symphony concerts, we are watching performances from previous seasons on YouTube. We are flipping through photo albums of vacations from years past and attending our children’s music recitals online.

Music has not been stopped by the coronavirus, even though many choirs and orchestras still are not rehearsing together. Beautiful places of the world are still beautiful, even though tourists can’t see them in person. 

But we miss concerts. We miss travel. 

Maybe it’s a good time to look back and reminisce about the years of international travel and concerts given around the world by the New England Youth Ensemble, renowned ambassadors for the Adventist Church, founded by the charismatic and unforgettable Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse.

The ensemble was started in the autumn of 1969, 51 years ago this year, with “just four little kids in my living room,” as Rittenhouse always said. From the very beginning, Rittenhouse — who was already an accomplished and internationally-known violin and piano soloist and composer — took her students on tours. They started performing and touring locally, then around New England, and soon internationally. As it outgrew Rittenhouse’s home, the orchestra was housed at Atlantic Union College and years later, it moved south and was based at Washington Adventist University, where it is still going strong, under the direction of former Rittenhouse student Preston Hawes. Rittenhouse, who took her orchestra to play in some of the world’s most prestigious venues on five continents, continued planning tours until she died in August 2011.

The impact that Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse had on hundreds, and maybe thousands, of people is profound. Her legacy lives on in musicians, music teachers, and anyone who traveled and played with her. These people in turn are passing her belief in the power of music on to new generations. 

Last year I talked to just a few of the hundreds upon hundreds of young musicians who toured with Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse over the decades, and asked them what it was like. Here is what they said.

Glee Charlestream

Glee Charlestream was one of the original members of the New England Youth Ensemble in 1969, and played with the ensemble for decades. His children also played and toured with the ensemble. Now he is a music teacher in Lyme, New Hampshire.

How did you meet Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse?

I was probably in the fifth grade when I first met her at an orphanage somewhere in central Massachusetts. My family were there singing for the kids. She wanted to know more about us when she saw we were musical. So, she found out that I played the violin. But my violin teacher had moved away, and I didn’t have a teacher or even a violin at that time. But when Virginia-Gene heard I used to play, she brought me down to her house, stuck a violin under my chin, and told me to play.

Did the New England Youth Ensemble exist then?

No, it was about two years later, in 1969, when I was in the seventh grade, that she brought me and three of her other students (I was the oldest) into her living room to practice playing some music together. We were the original “four little kids” that became the New England Youth Ensemble.

How long did you play with the NEYE?

I played with the group until 1979, when I got married and dropped out. But then we had two boys, and they started playing the violin and cello when they were three and four. By the time they were five and seven, Dr. Rittenhouse said they had to be in the orchestra, and they began going on tours all over the place. Of course, we went with them too because they were so young. So, I went back to playing with the ensemble again, this time on viola. The boys performed with the ensemble all the way up through their teenage years. We had two more kids 13 years later, and they also played violin and cello. 

What was it like touring with the orchestra?

The thing about those trips was that I didn’t really care where we were going. I liked to play music, and I liked being with my friends. It didn’t really matter whether it was California or Europe or wherever. 

There were always such a wide range of people on the tour. There were academy kids and college kids, and some grade school kids who were really talented. There were also always ringers that she would bring on tours. Once we were on a tour to California, and we were driving through Wyoming — you know how desolate it can get there in the wintertime. A bunch of us were in the back of the bus, and one of the non-Adventist kids had a deck of cards and started teaching us Adventists to play poker. We were using pennies for chips. Dr. Rittenhouse came walking to the back of the bus, and you know how she used to slap her hands together when she was scolding us? She was doing that and said: “You should not be playing cards, that is not something we approve of. You should be looking out the window!” She was much stricter in the early days. Of course we felt guilty. 

Those trips were just wonderful. We were one of the first groups to be able to go behind the Iron Curtain on an amazing trip to Poland, where we met Adventists who had not seen other Adventists in so long. This trip was sponsored by the Friendship Ambassadors, who also arranged for students from Eastern bloc countries to come to the US in an exchange program. 

On Saturday morning they wanted to take us sightseeing, but Dr. Rittenhouse insisted that we wanted to go to the Adventist Church. Of course the guides were atheists and said the churches were closed. Dr. Rittenhouse argued and argued and finally got them to change our plans for the day and to drive us to this Adventist church in Poland. The guide said that only one person could go in. Dr. Rittenhouse went in, and the people were so surprised to see her. Dr. Rittenhouse came back out and said, “The kids must come in and see this!” The guide said no. Dr. Rittenhouse argued and argued. Have you ever tried to get out of a rehearsal? Well, just like that, she does not accept excuses! So we went in, all these American kids, wearing our bright American clothes for traveling. Dr. Rittenhouse went up to the front and passed on greetings to the church members from the General Conference — who of course they had not been in touch with from behind the Iron Curtain. It was a memorable experience. 

How did playing with the NEYE impact your career?

I was always interested in many things other than music. I never even intended to keep playing music, and it was only Dr. Rittenhouse’s encouragement that kept me going. Back then, I had no idea, none at all, what it would eventually turn into. 

I ended up making a career in desktop publishing. But more than a decade ago, I switched back to music, and now all I do is teach violin and piano, and chorus. I have my own string ensemble, too. All of my teaching techniques basically come from being involved with Dr. Rittenhouse growing up.

Now I tell all of my students about traveling with Dr. Rittenhouse. I am really just trying to give back what Dr. Rittenhouse gave to me. 

Jeremy vanDieman

Jeremy vanDieman runs the largest single-teacher violin studio in Calgary, Canada, and is assistant concertmaster of the Kootenay Symphony. He was concertmaster and soloist with the New England Youth Ensemble for 11 years, beginning in 1973, when he was a high school freshman. VanDieman was on the orchestra’s first tour to Poland in 1975, under the auspices of the Friendship Ambassadors program, in connection with the US State Department — a concert tour to promote goodwill between countries. He played Wieniawski’s Romance with the orchestra in a special performance in Poland for US President Gerald Ford and the president of Poland.

Do you have any idea how many tours you were on?

There's no way to know now how many tours I went on with the New England Youth Ensemble. Virginia-Gene was a non-stop powerhouse of activity at one time. During the 1970s, in particular, it seemed we were constantly returning from one tour, only to start making plans for another. How any of us finished high school is a good question. I know I've travelled to 25 countries and territories on five continents with the NEYE, including the United States, Canada, Poland, then Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Russia, Latvia, Austria, Switzerland, England, France, Israel, Turkey, Greece, Thailand, South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Bahamas, Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. 

In retrospect, it was a fantastic education as a kid to see big chunks of the world. Cultures in even neighboring countries, along with the language, were often very different. It became evident that people everywhere were experiencing the world in sometimes unexpected ways.

How did you come to start playing with the NEYE?

I started violin in the Suzuki School of Dr. Charles Davis at Andrews. I started playing with the NEYE when Virginia-Gene came to Andrews and heard me play, and immediately offered me a scholarship to transfer to South Lancaster Academy in Massachusetts, which was in the orbit of AUC — and I did just after the first semester of my freshman year of academy at Pioneer Valley Academy, in New Braintree, Massachusetts.

How would you say playing with the NEYE impacted your life?

I think all the traveling with the NEYE definitely broadened my horizons, and encouraged me to realize that life, and the world, were vastly bigger than my immediate experience. Virginia-Gene was always very intentional about things, and her exceptionally strong personality influenced me to see the value of action, and of making decisions, and sticking to them. I also saw the value of friendships. To this day, I think all Ensembelites from the 1970s still feel a special bond. After all, we were roommates and orchestra partners for a good part of each year, and throughout our growing years. 

Is there one story that you experienced that really demonstrates what Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse was like?

There are many stories that could be written about Virginia-Gene. One that definitely stands out is when our bus drove up to the Russian border, and we were ordered to turn around and go back. This was when VG really poured it on in terms of advocacy. I could just feel that she wasn't going to be turned back for anything. Rumor has it that she paid $25,000 of her own money, on the spot, to secure our tour through Russia, and even then, as further rumor has it, we were spied on the whole time. VG was a risk-taker, no question. The uncertainty and impromptu quality of live performances were definitely her element. She believed in intuition, and charting her own course.

Robert Johnston

Robert Johnston retired after a 32-year career as an R&D chemist at The Dow Chemical Company and lives with his wife Kathy in Lake Jackson, Texas where he enjoys bicycling, hiking, camping, and writing

When did you play with the New England Youth Ensemble?

I played with the NEYE in residence for only one year, beginning the summer of 1975 with the trip to Poland when we ended up with the unplanned command performance for Ford, and then during the 1975-76 school year when I attended South Lancaster Academy so I could keep playing in the NEYE. Since South Lancaster Academy was not a boarding academy, I lived with a wonderful family in the community, Jack and Charlotte Creighton, who were supportive of the NEYE. Jeremy vanDieman (our concertmaster at the time) and I lived with them and their sons that year.

I supported myself by working in the broom shop near AUC, and the entire experience of living away from home, working hard to pay my tuition and board, and immersing myself in music and practice taught me a lot about what is possible when you put your mind to it. It was a year of a lot of personal growth.

I traveled with the NEYE to Poland and Russia the summer of 1976, and then I returned to Berrien Springs for my senior year at Andrews Academy and then college at Andrews University. During my years at Andrews, I did several summer trips and winter/spring break trips with the NEYE. It was a great experience, and I’m so thankful that Dr. Rittenhouse had the vision (and her husband’s support) to make that possible for so many of us! 

How did you meet Dr. Rittenhouse?

She knew about me because my brother had played trumpet with the ensemble briefly a few years before. 

What instrument did you play?

I was second trombone — and I was originally invited at the last minute to come and play with the ensemble because the French horn player had injured his arm and couldn’t play, and VGR thought I could play some of the horn parts on the trombone. The first trombonist and I would sometimes play French horn or bassoon parts when there weren’t trombone parts and there wasn’t coverage on all the parts for those instruments. That was the NEYE for you!

What impact did playing with the NEYE have on you?

I had been raised in institutional and missional Adventism and had yet to see much of the world outside. The NEYE experience helped me view other Christians as Christians, since VG happily took us to any church that would have us perform, and had many repeat performance connections with Congregational, Universalist, and other denominational churches in the AUC area. I guess you could say that Dr. Rittenhouse and the NEYE were an “ecumenicalizing” influence for a sheltered Adventist teen!

I did not go on to become a professional musician, but many did. Lyndon Taylor, one of the siblings that formed the Taylor Quartet and played with the ensemble, now plays the violin with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as principal second violin. He also ended up marrying one of my sisters!

The New England Youth Ensemble has also had a major impact on music and music education in the Adventist Church. Directors of both the Southern Adventist University and Pacific Union College orchestras have played in the New England Youth Ensemble. Music faculty in Southwestern Adventist University, Andrews University, and of course Washington Adventist University have also played with the ensemble. Music teachers in Adventist elementary schools and academies across the US and Canada are ensemble alumni.

Rachelle Berthelsen Davis

Rachelle Berthelsen Davis has chaired the music department at Pacific Union College since 2010. She also directs the college orchestra. She served as concertmaster of the New England Youth Ensemble, and later worked as Dr. Rittenhouse's assistant and served as part of the music faculty at what is now Washington Adventist University from 2001 to 2003, helping to keep the show on the road.

When and how did you first meet Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse? 

I first met Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse when the NEYE came to Mayaguez, Puerto Rico on tour in March of 1985. I was 12 at the time and got to play the first movement of the Bach Double violin concerto with them in concert at Antillian College (now University). It was a key motivating experience that kept me practicing violin through high school. I wanted to solo with an orchestra again!

My parents were mission doctors at Bella Vista Hospital at the time and looking at moving to the US. Rittenhouse, of course, tried to get them to move to South Lancaster so I could play with the group and study with her.

When did you play with the NEYE? How old were you when you first played with the ensemble? 

I joined the NEYE when I went to Atlantic Union College for my freshman and sophomore years, 1990-1992. I was 18 at the time and most of the NEYE members were older. It was Michael Stepniak's last year so when he graduated, I stepped into the concertmaster position. Though I transferred to Pacific Union College for my junior and senior years I continued traveling with the group throughout the 1990s and eventually returned to be Rittenhouse’s assistant on the faculty of Columbia Union College from 2001-2003. 

Is there one story that you experienced that really encapsulates Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse for you? 

There are too many. The "Two Sticks" story she always told if we were going to play the Frescobaldi Toccata or the Wieniawski violin concerto slow movement probably encapsulates who she was more than anything else. She was a woman who didn't take "No" for an answer. 

There were the violin lessons right before tour where she was accompanying me (most likely on the Bruch violin concerto) and the piano part got very thin — but still with the correct chords. When I glanced over, her eyes were closed with her head drooping. Not long after, she woke up and returned to accompanying me as if nothing had happened. On the England-South Africa trip of 2002, the ensemble had an hour to kill in London before heading to the airport and so Virginia-Gene decided to take us all to the Tower of London. When she saw how long the lines were to get tickets she went around from person to person asking "Are you in line?" trying to find a way to get the group into the tower. I think it was one of the few times she didn't get what she wanted.

How were tours with the NEYE different than tours with other musical groups? 

I only traveled with one other group (the Pacific Union College string quartet tour to Scandinavia with Leroy Peterson) and was surprised when he let us sleep in the first day. Granted, it was a chamber ensemble, but it was a much less stressful tour. With Rittenhouse, if you weren't performing or traveling between concerts or (occasionally) doing something touristy, you were practicing. It mostly kept us out of trouble…

How did Dr. Rittenhouse and the NEYE impact you?

I was one of the lucky ones who was always on her good side and so the NEYE was a positive experience for me. I got to see the world as a traveler, rather than as a tourist. That was transformative for me. It is possible that I would not have become a professional musician if I hadn't had the opportunity to solo so much with the NEYE and had the encouragement to continue my studies as a performance major.

Has Dr. Rittenhouse and your NEYE experience had any impact on how you run your orchestra now? Do you try to do anything the way she did? Or avoid doing certain things the way she did, maybe?

My experience with Rittenhouse has certainly impacted how I program repertoire for the PUC Orchestra today. From her I learned how to read and engage an audience. I learned how to set up the audience’s experience of the concert through comments about the pieces. I learned how to program a varied and engaging concert for various audiences on tour. When I found out I would be directing an orchestra, I made sure I learned how to use a baton effectively — no conducting with a bow for me! Also, we give a concert with new repertoire each quarter — though tour music has old standbys.

Mark Di Pinto

Pianist Mark Di Pinto is an associate professor in the music department of Washington Adventist University, home of the New England Youth Ensemble, and is married to Ekaterina — another ensemble alumna. He began playing with the ensemble in 1995, soon after it moved from Atlantic Union College, and soloed with the group across Europe, the Middle East, Australia, and South Africa until 2005.

How old were you when you first started playing in the NEYE?

It was 1995, and I was a freshman at Columbia Union College. I had heard the orchestra and choir at Highland View Academy the spring before, and was blown away but I was not sure I would ever be accepted into the orchestra and was planning to attend Southern Adventist University anyway. But my music teacher Dr. Bill Bromme encouraged me to at least play for Dr. Rittenhouse. I arranged to meet her at Sligo Church and I auditioned for her with some Mozart and Chopin. I remember it being much more than an audition — she was standing right next to the piano, which was a little unnerving. But she would mutter words of encouragement at moments she liked, even pushing and pulling on my arms at times to shape a phrase. Afterward she talked to me on the curb for about two hours straight, telling me of all the wonderful opportunities to play solos with the orchestra and talking of Carnegie Hall, world tours, and so on. It was hard to pass up such an opportunity and I'm so glad I met her. It was more than she promised, or I ever imagined!

What were some of the standout tours you went on? How many tours did you go on?

The seven-week Australia tour was pretty epic — beautiful, enchanting country, and playing in the Sydney Opera House was incredibly special. But I really did love going to South Africa — I went on four tours to South Africa, and it’s hard to say which was the best because they were all amazing.

There were innumerable locals tours, of course, but if my memory is correct, one major west coast tour and one major international tour per year minus a couple that didn't happen comes to: nine international summer tours and eight Christmas break tours, which sometimes included Jamaica. [Rittenhouse had lived in both South Africa and Jamaica, and both were special places to her.]

Can you tell us a story about Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse?

More of a tongue-in-cheek story: She would never, ever, take no for an answer, which I'm sure drove many of the people she worked for mad. The only time I ever witnessed her defeat was when she tried to bring some cheese from New Zealand into Australia. It was confiscated at the airport after much arguing. The whole bus joked about her being defeated in "The Battle of the Cheese" for the rest of the tour. She had a great sense of humor and had a good laugh about it with us.

What did playing in the orchestra mean to your life? 

Well, I met my spouse in the orchestra and even though it took awhile, I credit NEYE with the outcome! 

Playing in the NEYE completely altered the course of school and career for me. I was pre-med and headed to medical school for sure… until playing in the NEYE made me realize how much I loved music, couldn't live without it, and, like medicine, how much of a positive contribution it could be to the world.

So, you made music your career.

Now I am trying to pass on the experiences I was fortunate enough to have and mentor the next generation of Washington Adventist University music students!

There are the inevitable positives and challenges in continuing on a program with such a legacy, and I think that Dr. Preston Hawes has done very well in taking the NEYE in a direction that is his while still honoring the heritage and mission of the NEYE.

I will say that although she had many unorthodox measures, I'm sure, we certainly do miss Rittenhouse’s ability to recruit students!

And what do you really miss about Dr. Rittenhouse?

Her passing was pretty tough to handle but her influence lives on in many of her students that have now spread across the world,

The energy and dedication she had was infectious, and her belief in us really did make us feel like we could do anything!

Igor Yuzefovich

Igor Yuzefovich is now concertmaster of the prestigious BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. He first played and soloed with the New England Youth Ensemble at the age of 12, and toured with Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse during the 1990s.

When did you play with the New England Youth Ensemble?

I joined the New England Youth Ensemble for the California tour in 1992. We took the bus from Atlantic Union College to Seattle, all the way down to San Diego, and then back to Atlantic Union College in Massachusetts. That was an amazing experience for me, having just come to the US from Russia, and to be able to sit at the front of the bus and watch the entire country go by. 

I think I played the First Movement of the Mozart Violin Concerto in D Major for most of the concerts on that tour. For a 12-year-old kid, that was such an eye-opening experience to stand in front of an orchestra day after day and perform in so many different cities.

What other tours did you go on?

I toured with the group again for the next few years: summer tours to Egypt, South Africa, Jordan and Israel, winter tours again to the west coast and Jamaica. In the summer of 1997 we went to Russia, England, Scotland, and Ireland. 

What impact has playing with Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse and the NEYE had on you personally and on your career?

It was an absolutely priceless experience to play in the orchestra as a young kid, to learn the repertoire and to solo. I will always remember the feeling of walking out onto the stage at Carnegie Hall for the first few times, feeling like I had just stepped out into a field of gold. Just knowing who had been on that stage and hearing the sound of that hall makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

I will always cherish the friendships that were made during the years I played with the group. The invaluable musical experiences and the incredible opportunities to see the world — not just the tourist hot spots but the real lives that people were living. That was truly the most unforgettable aspect of it, one which I think in a large way formed and shaped the person I am today.

Naomi Burns Delafield

Naomi Delafield is concertmaster of the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra in Alberta, Canada, and runs a violin studio and string shop. She also directs a youth orchestra called the Rosedale Valley String Orchestra that she started almost 20 years ago. She is married to David Delafield, who she met in the New England Youth Ensemble. 

How and where did you meet Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse? How old were you when you first started playing in the NEYE? 

I met Virginia-Gene in Australia when our school went to hear the New England Youth Ensemble perform at Avondale College. I was 13 years old. Long story short I wound up playing part of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with them that night with no rehearsal (typical), and that meeting became the beginning of the end! When I was 17, I was lucky enough to tour twice with them while in my last year of high school. Then I spent nine months busking at the Sydney Harbour in Australia so that I could join them full time. I was 18 when I moved to the USA and began playing with NEYE in the fall of 1994.

For how long did you play with the NEYE? What years were you concertmaster?

I was blessed to play with NEYE as concertmaster from September 1994 to July 2001. In May 2001, I married David Delafield, who played viola with the ensemble, and we moved to Alberta, Canada. 

What were some of the standout tours you went on? Do you know how many tours you were on?

The number of tours are too many to count — truly! Best tour… that is hard. Highlights for me may have been exploring the Middle East, Iceland, and performing in the Sydney Opera House.

What do you remember especially about Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse?

Traveling in South Africa I will always remember VG sitting at the front of the bus telling us stories from her childhood — she was always the best storyteller. The length of her concerts was legendary — and her favorite pieces were performed over and over again. That was really signature for her. I've never met anyone who can pack so many soloists into one concert!

What did playing in the orchestra mean to your life? 

It wasn't until I experienced the magic of playing with friends in this orchestra that I fell in love with music and playing the violin. From there the whole direction of my life changed. I married a young Canadian man in the orchestra and ended up in Canada teaching and playing music. Now my own children are all learning to play string instruments. 

How did playing with the NEYE influence how you direct your group now? How did those tours influence the tours you go on? 

My experience with NEYE taught me much about running an orchestra and also taught me how not to do things! But one thing will never change: VG inspired me to love music and to possibly change the world through it, so I try to help my students and orchestra students experience the same spark of excitement. We have a motto in our orchestra: “Changing the world one note at a time.” Over the past 17 years we have raised $200,000 for less fortunate children all over the world thanks to a partnership with A Better World Canada. 

Honestly, since 9/11 I feel it’s been much harder for groups to travel, especially orchestras with lots of instruments and equipment, so we have not tried to tour very much.

Keri Vandeman Tomenko

Keri Tomenko is a violin teacher in Maryland with a busy private studio. She met her husband, Deric Tomenko, a violist, in the New England Youth Ensemble. 

How old were you when you first started playing in the NEYE? How did you meet Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse?

It was the fall of 1993, and I was 14 years old. I went to Spencerville Junior Academy (now Spencerville Adventist Academy) and I was a freshman. I got a call to come audition for Dr. Rittenhouse at the Takoma Park Seventh-day Adventist Church. I remember playing the Veracini Gigue and she accompanied me on the piano by ear. That first year the NEYE met in the basement choir room of the Takoma Park Church. [Dr. Rittenhouse was commuting from her home in Massachusetts.] I remember the first rehearsal and I left feeling so excited and inspired to be playing great compositions in an orchestra.

For how long did you play with the NEYE?

That is hard to say. I have never really stopped. When I am invited, I still play with the ensemble whenever I can. I played consistently from 1993 through 2001 and then as I was able ever since then. Now Deric [Tomenko] and I tend to alternate playing depending on if Preston [Hawes] needs violin or viola more. One of us plays and one of us stays with the kids.

What tours did you go on with the orchestra?

A whole bunch of California and Jamaica tours. 1994 Canada, 1995 Utrecht and the Middle East, 1996 Middle East, 1997 Norway and Russia, 1998 South Africa, 1999 Scotland/Russia/Siberia, 2005 South Africa, 2006 South America, 2008 Greece/Turkey/Romania, Bulgaria, Austria. Then the first baby arrived and no more tours…

Is there one story that you experienced that really encapsulates Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse for you?

I remember one time when the whole orchestra was exhausted from travel and we were all falling asleep on the bus, but she kept trying to wake us up so we wouldn't miss the sites. The stories really start to flow though whenever we all get together! (I still regularly meet up with NEYE alumni who live all over the country and internationally.)

How did playing with the orchestra impact your life?

As I tell my kids when explaining how important daily practice is: the violin and music has touched and benefited every part of my life. Because of the NEYE and Dr. Rittenhouse I made life-long friends that feel more like family, met my husband and have our kids, have traveled to six continents and have a love of traveling and exploring new places, cultures, food. I love road trips — all those hours on the bus! I especially love quartet and orchestra playing. I teach violin.

What kind of musical experiences do your children have?

Music has surrounded our kids since the womb as I was teaching, performing, and listening to music. When the kids were babies, we sang constantly throughout the day. They grew up hearing students having lessons in the house and hearing Deric and I practice and perform. When our oldest was two years old I took training for early childhood music classes. All of our kids went through years of early childhood music with me. Each child was begging us for music lessons around the age of four. Nikolai and Elena are violinists and pianists, and Natalia is a cellist. They dearly love music though the daily practice isn't always appealing. We do the best we can to practice on the days we eat. 

April and Travis Losey

April Losey is director of the Los Angeles Suzuki Institute and teaches violin and viola in Redlands, California. She is a member of the Redlands Symphony Orchestra and the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra.

Travis Losey is a neurologist specializing in epilepsy and is Vice Chair of the Department of Neurology at Loma Linda University Health.

How old were you when you first started playing in the NEYE? 

April: It was 1994 and I was a freshman in college when I started playing with NEYE.

Travis: I was 16 years old

For how long did you play with the NEYE?

April: Four years during college.

Travis: Six years.

What were some of the standout tours you went on? Do you know how many tours you were on?

April: I was on every tour from the summer of 1994 to the summer of 1999. They were all exceptional — each in their own way. Visiting the townships in Soweto, churches in Bethlehem, playing in Jerash, Jordan, being mobbed by crowds of fans after concerts in Siberia are some things that immediately come to mind.

Travis: I was on every tour from the summer of 1993 to summer of 1999 except South Africa in 1998.

What did playing in the orchestra mean to your life? How did it impact you? 

April: The orchestra has impacted every aspect of my life. I am a professional musician and I married someone from the orchestra (and this year was our 21st wedding anniversary).

Travis: Playing with the NEYE was my first experience meeting other people who were from different backgrounds and who had different life experiences from me. NEYE led to my choice in college and it's where I met my wife and made my closest friends to this day.


Read a portrait of Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse here

A 2019 story for the Columbia Union VisitorThe Legacy Lives On, sparked these interviews.


Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.

Photos courtesy of the interviewees. Top photo of the New England Youth Ensemble in the 1970s, from the Music Department of Washington Adventist University.


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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

no kidding…there’s nothing like being on the road in a new environment, especially when you’re on a mission - even if that mission is relaxing on a beach somewhere… :sunglasses:

thx for a great set of interviews, and memories, alita…you’re really the best…i always enjoy your interviews here on Spectrum:slight_smile:


Thanks for this lovely article. I remember Dr Rittenhouse and the NEYE visiting Crieff in Scotland so well. It was so generous that the NEYE came and gave the full treatment to such a small gathering! Dr Rittenhouse’s enthusiasm was inspirational. She introduced the items in such a winning yet professional way. I’m a scientist but these visits - they came several times - the beauty and variety of the music - the witness of the young orchestra members - had a huge influence on me. As a result music still plays a big part in my life.
John Walton

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Thanks, @alitabyrd.

The New England Youth Ensemble and Dr. Rittenhouse performed two or three times, I think, at our home church in Hempstead, Long Island.

My late mom would book them, as part of Christian education fundraisers she’d produce.

So, to me, they were always there; part and parcel of being SDA; something of a channel in its background noise, if you will.

Reading this oral history, however, gave me another level of insight into Rittenhouse’s character, personality, and drive; all from the people who knew, were taught by, and loved her.

Looking online, I found this picture of her, presumably at the age of many she would, later, instruct:

It all just makes me wonder: Why has no one done a biopic on this woman? She seems to have an amazing story; one that certainly transcends Adventism.

Why has no one written it down?



tons of people - and i do mean tons - constantly begged her to write an autobiography, but she never got around to it…to the last, she lived in and for the moment…she would have had even less time for a movie, as she didn’t generally believe in movies…

but there are people now who probably could do a biography or biopic of her…

The 2011 profile by @alitabyrd depicts Rittenhouse’s excitement and relief at having published an oratorio on which she’d worked, intermittently, for 40 years. Handel, she was not.

However, Byrd’s piece also reinforces the complexity of Rittenhouse’s story and personality. I’m guessing there is enough material, simply based on the number of people who worked with her and who recollect her, to create a compelling screenplay…even if she’d have never watched the end product.


VG actually produced two oratorios. The first one, Song of the Redeemed, which sounds like a mixture of Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, was composed when she was 17, and in a matter of months, if not weeks. Some of the more memorable moments from this oratorio, such as The 23rd Psalm, was tweaked many times during ensuing yrs…the version NEYE performed during my time featured a soprano soloist with female trio back up, and strings parts were altered slightly from time to time (the original version features a tenor solo, representing the boy David, with somewhat cumbersome and inefficient strings parts)…i had to rescore large parts of these original strings parts due to cleff and key problems, leading up to the U.S. premiere this past august, which had to be canceled due to covid…but i stuck to what i knew were her instincts, which in this particular piece, and in her early yrs, was always tending to what was natural, and what she referred to as “inevitable”, given the implications of her theme, which itself was driven by the perceived meaning of her subject…

you can’t convince me that this particular oratorio doesn’t evince a talent as spectacular as Handel’s…

the oratorio that took 40+ yrs was really her second oratorio, The Vision of the Apocalypse, which was a thorough departure from Song of the Redeemed, drawing from some of the neo-classicism of Stravinsky, but also of course the inspiration of Nadia Boulanger, who taught both Stravinsky’s younger son and VG, among many others (her younger sister, Lily, was a minor composer in the neo-classic mold)…VG’s aim in this work was to capture shades of feeling arising from texts in the book of Revelation and Psalm 90, but also the general amorphousness associated with what was ultimately unknowable, even when directly witnessed or experienced…a half century is not inordinate for such an ambitious quest…personally, i don’t believe Handel could have written this oratorio, given his environment, and the time in which he produced, but also considering his tendency for obvious and relatively low hanging compositional fruit…

what was always striking about VG’s talent was her capacity for instant adaptation, and in a way that always captured what could be felt, sometimes after some reflection, to be the true emotional meaning of notes and chord progressions…her numerous spontaneous accompaniments to her students’ solos, for instance, were always remarkable…she simply thought and felt something, and her fingers automatically supplied the notes on the piano, sometimes in quite complex counterpoint (she had this capacity on violin, as well)…i don’t believe she ever studied in order to learn, but to articulate intelligently what was always innate…she was almost like a person deliberately created around the concept of music…i don’t expect to ever see this type of phenomenon again…


Thanks, @vandieman.

I’m thrilled that what was, to me, something of a throwaway comment has produced such an outpouring of thought and emotion from you!

Also, from what you’ve written, it appears that you may not only be a musician of some accomplishment, but an acquaintance of Rittenhouse’s. This is doubly exciting. Has any of her work been recorded, or are there plans to do so?

I’m a consumer of music. I think about it, I talk to musicians about music, and I sometimes share my thoughts by writing and speaking. Lately, I’ve taken to working with musicians, in an effort to effect some of my musical ideas. Finally, I’ve even written a small amount of music, myself, that I expect others will cover.

Certainly, I don’t think that the time it takes to write a piece of music is indicative of its quality, absolutely, or necessarily. Handel wrote the music for his oratorio, Messiah, in three-and-a-half weeks. Leonard Cohen wrote the song, “Hallelujah,” in five years.

I’m guessing that Rittenhouse’s “40 years” spent creating The Vision of the Apocalypse marks the period between starting and completing work, with much of that time given to other tasks and commitments; e.g., The NEYE. Maybe, like Cohen, her actual time solely on the job was five years.

As for Handel’s “tendency for obvious and relatively low hanging compositional fruit,” I don’t know what this means. Nor do I know why obvious and relatively low hanging compositional fruit is something for which musicians should not tend, if it is.

Said another way, music that people don’t use, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, human beings have been singing and playing Handel, all over the planet, with no apparent sign of stopping, for a quarter-millennium. Maybe obvious and relatively low hanging compositional fruit is what one needs to accomplish such vivid longevity.


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i was concertmaster of NEYE for 11 yrs, during the time when NEYE performed without a conductor…it was up to the concertmaster to start and end performances, indicate expression during performances, and cue in entrances for every division of the orchestra (needless to say, this meant essentially memorizing all orchestra parts to everything we played)…VG customarily sat in the back of the orchestra, filling in missing parts, or augmenting existing parts, on the piano…she took to conducting with her bow only because i commended her for doing so briefly during a rehearsal, in my weekly column as music critic for AUC’s music scene, which at that time was extensive…this was my last column, shortly before leaving for PUC (i was offered a job with the Worcester Chronicle for that column)…

during the time i was concertmaster, and her student, i can promise you that VG and i were close…even while in high school, i was a sounding board for all her troubles, as she was for mine, sometimes far into the night…we’d sit in her car outside Thayer Conservatory and go over everything - the good, the bad and the ugly - before she slowly drove me home…we were kindred spirits along many lines - i was also a favourite with her mother, Win Osborn Shankel, as well as her aunt Lettie…i believe i’m her only student she promised to adopt, many times, if anything happened to my parents…she paid for all my lessons, all my music, all my tuxedos, all my overseas trips, and gave me unlimited use of her Gagliano violin, which i won three competitions with that i recall…

my mother was suspicious of our relationship…she believed VG was intruding into her space as my mother…mom told me more than once to never trust a white south african, by which i knew she meant VG…she was thrilled when i transferred to PUC, and upset when i transferred back to AUC…i can remember one conversation of theirs that i overheard parts of…VG was saying strongly that i was obviously born to be a violinist and a musician…mom was saying, as her ultimate trump card, “but i’m his mother”…she wanted me in medicine because, of her three boys, i was the one with consistently good grades, and she believed that every family should have at least one doctor amongst the children…

i navigated that tightrope carefully for yrs…i can’t say i didn’t trust VG, because obviously i did…i could constantly feel that she loved and believed in me, and had high hopes for me…i could sense the advantages of what she constantly offered me…for one thing, i lived with her during most summers…i had my own bedroom in her huge house in Sterling, which was rumoured to be the place where the first Singer sewing machine was put together before being patented in Boston, and where Mary Had A Little Lamb was first phrased…VG had huge orchards bordering a stretch of lake, and it was a wonderful place to lose oneself in during the summer…but in the end, it is true that i kept a part of my heart to myself because, although VG was a strong egw adventist, i could sense that her religion was a bit different than my mother’s…even at that age, and experience level, i understood that it was my mother’s religion that i would ultimately embrace…

i believe there are recordings of the oratorios and the Jamaican Suite…unfortunately the magical moments of the numerous on the spot improvisations live only in our memories…

VG was definitely not a craftsman, like Beethoven, who kept a litany of notes of different possibilities for developing his thematic material, which he also constantly revised…what she wrote was purely the result of inspiration…her tendency was to write things in a complete form from the outset…she said many times that there was no point in writing music unless you were being carried in the arms of inspiration, because it would just be dead, and therefore worthless…this was her view of performing, as well (she had little time for orchestra players because she believed they had allowed themselves to degenerate into machines, although she also believed that most orchestra players could never be soloists even if they wanted to be)…although it is true that she gave me at least one technical lesson per week, most of our time had to do with understanding the correct feeling, and amount of feeling, in a phrase (we spent two yrs on the Brahms Violin Concerto, which was the last piece i studied with her)…she was big on matching bowings, fingerings and vibrato speeds with the emotional meaning of music…her point of praying before even a secular performance was to be inspired as the performance unfolded…she even told me many times that if i prayed before a performance, angels from heaven would cover up any mistakes made, as long as these mistakes were not the result of negligence in practicing…

it’s important to understand that VG wore many hats…she was a soloist, performing both the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor Piano Concerto and the Sibelius Violin Concerto during my time with her, in addition to numerous recitals…she was also Concertmaster and soloist with the Worcester Symphony during my high school yrs - and yes, i sat right beside her, playing in this orchestra…she was also a board member of a number of musical societies besides teaching at Thayer Conservatory (AUC’s music dept. at the time), and Hartt College of Music…several of her students were competition winners, and soloists, and so took up a lot of time with extra, sometimes hrs long, lessons…and she was constantly, and i do mean constantly, planning overseas tours with NEYE…she wasn’t like Handel, who had nothing to do but compose, and who wrote what he wrote for a buck, and so obviously catered to his audience…i can remember saying to VG that her gift to the world was obviously composition, and that she needed to streamline her life in order to produce more…her answer was always that god expects us to do what he puts in our path, whether we like it or not, and whether we receive recognition for it or not…she believed that even menial tasks, like planning a tour, carried eternal consequences…

in reality, though, and quite aside from anything religious that she often expressed, she was a strongly action-oriented personality…i don’t believe she would have been energized, or enthused, to be wearing only one hat at a time…she thrived when many things demanded instant attention at the same time…she was happiest when things were in a state of what she frequently referred to as “a crisis”…her numerous stories were a reflection of this over the top mindset…these stories were very liberal expansions of what was literally true - and they were riveting, filled with a strong shock quality and floor rolling laughter at the same time…my impression was always that her imagination was as much a part of her reality as the reality everyone around her was witnessing, and experiencing…


Thank you, Jeremy, for contributing to this Q&A, and also for filling in many more stories of your era with Dr. Rittenhouse. Some of this I did not know, so thank you so much for sharing. Some is of course very familiar – I appreciate your description of the way she told a story! I think that we who played with her in the 1990s certainly had the real Rittenhouse experience, but I don’t think it was quite on the same level as what you experienced in the 1970s when Rittenhouse was in her prime. The world is a poorer place without her energy, but her influence certainly lives on.


there’s undoubtedly something to this…in the '70’s, VG was in her 50’s, and in her prime, as you say…of course she was amazing in her 70’s, as well, but age was catching up to her…at the oratorio performance in Carnegie, in 2004, or thereabouts, she was definitely a different person, no question…

you might try contacting Frank Araujo, choral conductor extraordinaire, who knew her as well as i did, but when she was much younger (i have his contact info if you need it)…Frank’s daughter was NEYE’s first Concertmaster (i was the 2nd)…Mrs. Shankel promised to adopt Frank, making him VG’s younger brother, if anything happened to his parents, much as VG constantly promised to do with me…Frank was the inspiration behind the U.S. premiere of the first oratorio, and i spoke non-stop with him on the phone for months about it…over the course of more than a year, he had written out all the original parts in a somewhat legible hand (VG was notoriously illegible), while i put in all the corrections in terms of modern performance practice, but also in terms of what i knew she meant (e.g., French 6ths instead of German 6ths; the melody must rule the phrase, and the rhythm must reflect the natural accenting in the text; etc)…we were constantly comparing notes…he has many things to share about VG, including performance stories that are nothing short of miraculous…in some ways he is a throwback to VG himself…

one thing that should be mentioned, that i witnessed, was the strong influence Mrs. Shankel had on VG…i can recall, soon after transferring to SLA (South Lancaster Academy), and soon after Thayer Conservatory Orchestra came into existence - which was a mecca for important players in the area, including Boston Symphony Orchestra players - that the conductor, who was chairman of AUC’s music dept. at the time, and a brilliant pianist with graduate degrees from Julliard, decided to perform Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto…of course everybody who was anybody attended, and the fireworks in this concerto was unfolding splendidly, when all of a sudden Mrs. Shankel stood up, wrapping her furs deliberately around her so as to cause a scene…she then walked out deliberately from the audience as soon as she knew she was being watched, followed by VG, and of course me (we were seated in the central front row of Machlan Auditorium). Mrs. Shankel was upset because the music had taken on a “sensual” character, which she described as “devilish”, and she was having none of it…a few yrs later, the same scene unfolded again in Machlan, but this time without Mrs. Shankel (i don’t recall now why she wasn’t there)…what was happening was a performance of the Heritage Singers, which VG believed was spiritual declension personified, and so the two of us strode out of the auditorium, in the middle of the performance…

to this day, i don’t believe i would do this type of thing…i would likely think to myself that different people have different understandings, and try to appreciate the merits, if any, of those understandings…but VG, like her mother, couldn’t be trifled with when it came to standards she believed in…and her standards were in many cases in marked contrast to the adventism common at AUC at the time…VG said many times that the adventist church was lost when it came to music…her mission, in her mind, wasn’t simply non-adventist audiences, but adventists, especially in the GC…

so a balanced overview of VG must mention the fact that she had many enemies, although very few would have dared to cross her to her face…she had an edge to her that upset many, many individuals…in fact i seem to recall a NEYE reunion somewhere devoted to VG recovery, which was funny and serious at the same time…her view was that all the bible heroes had enemies who were lost, that christ himself had enemies, and that it couldn’t be helped, or avoided…she even believed that the lack of enemies was a sure sign you weren’t doing god’s work…i think the impact she had on people around her was a mixture of this non-negotiable, very certain, spirituality and her stupendous talent…an average person simply had no chance against her…

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Thanks, @vandieman.

Why haven’t you written her biography?


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lol…i only knew her for one decade of her very eventful life…not only that, i probably have less time than she did…as of this writing, i have 81 registered students, and teaching is only one of the many hats i’m wearing… :slight_smile:

Perhaps you should write a screenplay of that very eventful decade; one of which you have, clearly, profound and deeply chromatic memories.


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i think the best tribute to VG, who had such an impact on so many, is just what this interviews article demonstrates: input from a broad section of people who were there at the time, and who saw her from many, sometimes differing, angles…the combination of NEYE and VG was an unforgettable phenomenon…all of us who experienced it will likely remember those yrs well…

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