by Rana Scarlett-Johnson, Managing Director, Omaha Area Youth Orchestra
Aviva Segall stood out the very first time she set foot in Omaha back in 1999.
The Southern California native came here back then to audition for her “dream job” — the position of music director of Omaha Area Youth Orchestras (OAYO). At the time, she was one of three young conductors chosen from a pool of more than 40 qualified audition tapes to come here for a “finalist” interview, which included working with the young OAYO musicians in a rehearsal.
It wasn’t long before Segall rose to the top of that “finalist” list. She was vivacious, full of energy and charm, and clear with the young musicians about what she wanted from them. Plus, “her goal was to be a conductor of young musicians,” rather than use youth orchestra experience as a stepping-stone to professional orchestras, said Ann Williamson, an Omaha Symphony Guild member and former OAYO board member. “That, to me, was impressive.”
Needless to say, Segall was hired to serve in the top artistic position for OAYO 15 years ago. And today, Segall continues to serve the organization as a beacon of excellence in music education for Omaha and the region.
“When Aviva Segall arrived in Omaha in 1999 as a young, energetic catalyst for excellence in youth orchestras, she began a fruitful and joyful tenure as a strong advocate for healthy, heroic musical growth,” said Patty Ritchie, director of Millard West Orchestras.
Segall began working in Omaha after several years of prestigious training. She earned a bachelor of arts degree from Wellesley College and subsequently attended the University of Southern California School of Music. She then received her master of music degree in orchestral conducting from Northwestern University, where she studied with Victor Yampolsky, music director emeritus of the Omaha Symphony.
Yampolsky was the first one to tout Omaha to her. “Victor was always talking about how Omaha was such a great place,” Segall said. Then, during a conducting workshop at Northwestern, she met Christine Myers, who was OAYO’s music director at the time. “I remember thinking, ‘If her job ever opened up, I would so love that job,” Segall said.
A couple of years later, it did. Segall’s time in Omaha has been everything she originally expected it to be and much more.
“Once we moved here, everybody was just so welcoming,” Segall said.
The very first Friday after she moved to Omaha, she was invited to a Shabbat dinner. She has since grown to be greatly involved in the Jewish community, serving on the Board of Directors of Beth Israel Synagogue and participating in countless activities offered through the Jewish Federation of Omaha. She has appreciated the opportunity to send her two girls, now ten and 12, to the Friedel Jewish Academy, giving them a quality of education that would not be accessible in many other cities.
“In most larger communities, it’s a lot more financially challenging to send your kids to a school like Friedel,” she said. “The community here has made it possible for people to actually do it. The school has been just like a family, and the girls have loved it.”
Omaha’s reputation as a welcoming, encouraging community has helped Segall accomplish several major initiatives for OAYO, an organization that provides orchestral education opportunities to more than 500 students annually. In 2002, the Youth Symphony, the organization’s most advanced ensemble, performed at the National Youth Orchestra Festival in Sarasota, FL. Segall has also forged connections with several major contemporary composers, Joan Tower, Chen Yi, Joseph Schwantner and William Bolcom, providing opportunities for the young musicians to not only perform new music but work with the composers themselves.
Under Segall’s baton, OAYO has also grown and expanded, adjusting to the needs of students and the community. She helped expand the organization’s Prelude Strings program, an introductory strings program for elementary school-aged musicians. She also helped originate OAYO’s Youth Conservatory Orchestra, an orchestral ensemble for students in grades 5 through 12, as well as the Percussion Ensemble, a small group designed to provide young percussion students with an opportunity to hone their skills.
What has made Segall so successful in her endeavors over the years are the same personal attributes and musical talents that helped her land the music director post years ago.
Anyone who has worked with Segall can attest to her excellent musical knowledge and skills.
“Her experiences help inform her teaching, I’m sure, but her knowledge in and of itself speaks volumes,” said John Orduna, a former student who played bass under Segall for ten years and now works as a professional baritone.
She pours everything she has–her experiences, skills and knowledge– into her passion, which is educating young people. She knows how to program music that will be challenging but achievable for all of the ensembles she conducts. And she has an approachable yet stern demeanor that effectively and respectfully engages the young musicians.
“I’ve worked in many different types of ensembles with a lot of conductors and often times the rehearsal process is a very crippling experience,” Orduna said. “Never once did I feel that way with her. I always felt empowered, and any performer will agree that this is the best way to get good stuff out of people.”
And despite her accomplishments, Segall never stops trying to improve herself.
“It’s not uncommon to see her attend Omaha Symphony rehearsals, listening, watching and studying scores to learn in a ‘live’ environment,” Ritchie said. “Her enthusiasm has not diminished.”
Looking to the future, Segall is excited about what might be next for OAYO. She would like to build even more ensembles for the organization and expand the introductory Prelude Strings program to reach even more students. She would like to plan tours for the student musicians, and engage even more guest conductors and guest composers to work with them. In short, she would like to continue what she began 15 years ago.
“You know how some things in your life end up working out perfectly? How you couldn’t have planned things better?” she said. “That is how this job has been for me.”