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. 

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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