Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse: Dialogue with a musician with an up-tempo vision for Adventist education

 

Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse has indelibly stamped Adventist culture with her vision of musical activism. Music has been her work of a lifetime, and yet her vitality today is scarcely less than when she first started the New England Youth Ensemble in 1970. With that ensemble she has traveled to more than 40 countries.

When she was 3, Canadian-born Virginia-Gene left with her parents for South Africa, where her father would serve as president of Helderberg College. Until she was 19, Virginia-Gene pursued her budding musical career there. Back in North America, she earned Master’s and doctoral degrees in music—the latter from the prestigious Peabody Conservatory in New York.

She became a well-known concert pianist and violinist, married Dr. Harvey Rittenhouse, and spent time in medical and music ministry in Jamaica before joining the faculty of Atlantic Union College in 1972. (Interestingly, her father had been dean there in the 1940s.) And, in some ways, that was the beginning of the story as Adventism has come to know this remarkable woman. The story of the New England Youth Ensemble is her story. And that continues in a new way with the transfer, seven years ago, of the Ensemble to Columbia Union College, in Takoma Park, Maryland.
 

What gave you the idea for the Youth Ensemble? What did you have in mind?

I was teaching at Atlantic Union College, and I had very young pupils, violinists. Just as an-off hand thought, I wondered if I had them play together, maybe they would get a bit more inspired to practice. So in my living room I gathered five of them—11 to 13 year olds—including my niece and nephew, and I said, “Let’s play together.” Well, they started playing together, and in no time at all we put them in little outfits and they started playing concerts. I found that people were just charmed and that it was a real mission. Our first concert was at a luncheon for the Kiwanis Club at Christmas time. Well, afterward a businessman came to me, all choked up. “We have never been so moved,” he said. “These young kids played Bach and Handel. It restores our faith in American youth!” Then others came, one after another, saying how much they appreciated the concert. Suddenly, I realized that there was real power in children and youth playing great music. That was the spark of my inspiration. Then we started playing in the churches everywhere. We played at the General Conference session in Atlantic City, New Jersey. We went to the World Youth Congress in Edinburough in 1973; that was our first overseas tour. The young people were just a sensation wherever we went. We played at many famous music centers, including ones in Poland and Russia.

So you have been constantly on the go ever since?

Yes, ever since 1973 without a break! Every year, twice a year. We have a winter tour, usually in California or the U.S. Northwest. Then it is on to the overseas tour, practically without a break.

How large is the group?

About 45, at any one time.

Do you have any idea how many young people in total have been part of the group?

Oh, hundreds. They put on a big alumni reunion last March and former ensemble “kids” came from all over the United States and everywhere. It was absolutely wonderful!

I need to get to the reason why Dialogue wanted this interview. It seems that you have used the ensemble to project the value of Adventist education.

Absolutely! My father was in Christian education all his life; president of Helderberg College, dean of Atlantic Union College, and so on. So I have been brought up on campuses since I was born—in fact, I was born on a college campus. I am absolutely committed to Christian education. And today, when so many of our young people are going to public universities for a variety of reasons, I still hold most strongly to the unique value of Adventist education.

I recruit ensemble members from all over the country. I think of a brilliant young violinist who is coming to join us at Columbia Union College. He is choosing us above Julliard, the prestigious School of Music. He has had an awful time making his decision, and I said to him, “Preston, let me tell you something, I know we are not Julliard. We are trying to raise money for a new music building. I want you to understand that it is inadequate, but it is not a building that you are coming to.” I told Preston that we are small, and we don’t have the facilities, and so on. “But, Preston, I can promise you that no place else can offer you what we can. We offer a Christian atmosphere.” I talk to the players in New York, and I know what they think. The spiritual dimension is not there. Many of them would love to join our group. They beg to go on the tours. If I opened up the program, I would have all non-Adventists on the tours. They love the idea of the mission and the tour and all. So I said to Preston, “You’ll have the tours. We go throughout the world. You’ll play in Carnegie Hall and you’ll have—the most important of all—a Christian atmosphere.” Well, I have convinced him.

From your long experience, can you recall an incident or anecdote that stands out in your mind?

I think it would have to be the moment in St. Petersburg, Russia, about four years ago when we played at a large stadium. There were 15.000 people there that night. I had no idea what we were getting into; to see hundreds of people surging up to us afterwards, all trying to talk to us in Russian, and flowers lining the stage. I think that was one of the most unforgettable moments. And as an outcome of that evangelistic crusade, thousands were baptized and we were at that baptism. It was wonderful!

And it is all happy memories of the past! Where to now?

The Ensemble is performing 15 concerts this season at Carnegie Hall. We have performed more at Carnegie Hall than any other orchestra in the country, I guess. Each season we tour all over the United States and other countries. We were in Australia last year and Scandinavia and Russia the year before. We tour every summer and we will soon be headed for England, Zimbabwe, and then to South Africa for the fifth time. Our guest conductor will be John Rutter, from England, the most famous composer and conductor of sacred music today. At his request, we are going with him throughout South Africa.

Our particular mission at this moment is the establishment of an orphanage for AIDS orphans in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Interview by Lincoln Steed.Lincoln Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine and associate director of public affairs and religious liberty for the North American Division. E-mail: steeli@nad.adventist.org You can contact Virginia-Gene Ritten-house by e-mailing her assistant at RochelleDavis@CUC.edu.