Nearly 30 years ago, music educator Richard Pontzious wanted to do something about the fact that orchestral playing in Asia was a low priority for students.
“Everyone’s going to be a soloist, right?” says Pontzious, founder of the Hong Kong-based Asian Youth Orchestra, which plays concerts in San Jose and Berkeley this week.
“My work with young musicians in Asia dates back to 1967, when I was teaching music and conducing various ensembles in Taiwan, Japan and Shanghai,” adds Pontzious, 73, who grew up in Berkeley and Davis, where his engineer father worked building UC campuses. (Before relocating in Asia, Pontzious also wrote about music for the San Francisco Examiner).
He enlisted the support of the great violinist, conductor and benefactor of young musicians, Yehudi Menuhin. Together, they realized Pontzious’ plan to create a pan-Asian youth orchestra.
In 1990, AYO started up as a summer project of master classes, orchestral rehearsals and performances, followed by a three-week tour, mostly in Asia. More recent tours have taken the band to the U.S., Europe and Australia.
More than 22,000 musicians have auditioned for AYO over the past 27 years.
Alumni have careers worldwide, including the Bay Area. San Francisco Symphony associate principal violist Jay Liu is one of them; he is also a graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory, where Pontzious has been teaching for many years.
Today, the orchestra includes more than 100 youths from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Pontzious revels in the realization of uniting musicians of troubled regions. Still a logistical-diplomatic challenge, running the project was very difficult at the beginning before the orchestra became better known.
“In the late 1980s, it was a delicate matter to even suggest that our ambition was to invite musicians from the mainland and Taiwan to Hong Kong to perform sitting side-by-side in the same orchestra,” Pontzious says. “Visa issues were fraught with challenges. In Hong Kong alone we were dealing with four and five different passports for HK residents, and each different passport came with its own set visa requirements.”
Pontzious, who shares time on the podium with James Judd, the orchestra’s principal conductor, leads the AYO this week in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Richard Strauss’ “Don Juan” in San Jose on Friday and in UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on Saturday.
The concert in San Jose opens with the screening of “In Search of Perfect Consonance,” Ruby Yang’s 38-minute-long documentary about the orchestra; the additional offering in Berkeley is the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with soloist Sarah Chang.
IF YOU GO
Asian Youth Orchestra
Where: Hammer Theater Center, 101 Paseo De San Antonio, San Jose
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 4
Tickets: $25 to $40
Note: AYO also appears at 8 p.m. Aug. 5 in Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus; tickets are $18-$86; visit calperformances.org.