2016 MID-CAREER PRIZE IN MUSIC
Somehow, the Detroit Symphony knew Liza Grossman was destined to conduct before she did. When she was 7-years-old, the DSO came to Walter P. Chrysler School in Detroit, and during their performance asked if any of the students would like to conduct. They chose Liza.
“I just remember them handing me a stick, and I didn’t quite understand what I had volunteered to do, but I had been watching the music director,” she says. “Then all of a sudden, there was a sound. It changed me.”
She informed her parents she wanted to learn how to play violin, but later changed to viola because she preferred the deeper sound. She attended Interlochen Center for the Arts for high school, and was accepted into Indiana University as a performance major. However, the teacher she most wanted to study with was leaving, so she took a chance and called the person her high school teacher had recommended: famed Cleveland Orchestra violinist Erich Eichhorn. He was teaching at Cleveland State University and invited her to study with him there.
“That was a life-changing experience for me,” Liza recalls, “because I found myself in another big city surrounded by choices and opportunities.”
While in school, the Rainey Institute hired her as a violin/viola teacher. Two weeks before a concert, the music director of a youth chamber string orchestra she was working for handed her the scores and resigned. She hadn’t conducted since her “debut” with the Detroit Symphony, but took to it immediately. “It was like a light suddenly turned on,” she says. “I figured it out - I want to be a youth orchestra conductor! This is what I’m supposed to be doing!” She stayed for five years, building the program while completing her undergraduate studies at CSU.
Then she got her chance to expand her dream. Edwin London, the Music Director of the Cleveland Chamber Symphony at CSU, decided to hold a contemporary music festival. He asked Liza to assist special guest, Pulitzer Prize winning composer Bernard Rands, who wanted to do a workshop on how children could access contemporary music. Rands generously mentored her and ended up letting her conduct the youth orchestra she had assembled for the festival. After the concert, he told her: “You have the ability to hear and teach this music. You should start a youth orchestra.”
Soon after, she turned down a job with a youth orchestra in another state to found the Contemporary Youth Orchestra. “I had about $400 in my savings account, and three families that I’m still close with gave me some startup money,” she says. “CSU allowed us to rent space, and I started CYO in the fall of 1995.”
Through her career as the founding Music Director of the Contemporary Youth Orchestra she has touched countless young performers’ lives as well as innumerable audience members. Many of these performances have helped bridge the high/low art divide by bringing rock artists such as Jon Anderson, Graham Nash, and the band Styx to Cleveland to perform with the CYO. She also serves as Styx’s Tour Conductor.
“What Liza brings to her work is an incredible amount of passion and generosity towards the kids she works with,” says Barry Gabel, member of CYO board of directors and senior marketing and sponsorship development for LiveNation. “The CYO wouldn’t be where it is at this point without her inspiration.”
Liza has conducted more than 500 world premieres, including eleven concertos with members of The Cleveland Orchestra, full scale orchestral works by Pulitzer Prize winning composers, numerous works by professional, emerging composers and hundreds of orchestral rock works.
Additionally, she has served as a guest conductor for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Jacksonville Symphony, Cleveland State and Kent State University Orchestras. She will make her debut with the Colorado Symphony in August.
Liza and CYO have received awards including three ASCAP awards for Adventurous Programming. STRAD magazine called her “a master of tutelage.” Liza and the Contemporary Youth Orchestra have been broadcast on AXSTV, PBS, VH1 Classic and Palladia. They can be heard on the self released CD, IV: Four World Premiere Concertos and One with Everything: Styx and the CYO.
“The 100 plus musicians in CYO are filled with an energy that is palpable.” Liza concludes. “My students are my motivation. They work hard and are devoted to discovering and creating and bringing this new music to life. They are incredible musicians who desire to be part of something that they can claim as their own."