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SF Symphony Youth Orchestra's young artists shine playing old music

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The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra has turned 30, and its youngest member has full appreciation for being part of this famous band.

“It’s one of the best youth orchestras in the country,” says 13-year-old percussionist Benjamin Ring from Piedmont. “Saturday is Youth Orchestra day, and that is my first priority. Even on the day of my bar mitzvah, I ran straight to the rehearsal, right after the service was over.”

Benjamin and more than 100 of his fellow orchestra members, ages 13 to 21, play Sunday in Davies Hall in a 30th anniversary gala concert boasting a substantial and challenging program.

Led by Wattis Foundation Music Director Donato Cabrera, the orchestra performs Béla Bartók’s 1939 “Divertimento,” a complex, virtuoso work, and Gustav Holst’s grand orchestral suite, the 1918 “The Planets.”

The touring Youth Orchestra is held in high esteem in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. At home, it provides tuition-free orchestral experience to young musicians from the greater Bay Area.

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Benjamin, who grew up around music — his father is a professional musician and mother is a music-lover — says he loves classical music even more today, because he’s playing it himself in the Youth Orchestra.

While on vacation last winter, he took his tambourine to practice his part in “The Planets.”

He takes lessons every week with two teachers, one for drum set and the other for orchestral percussion and mallets.

He doesn’t mind being the youngest in his section, and calls his compatriots supportive and helpful. He says, “All of them are a lot older than I am, but I never feel like an outsider. My section rocks.”

Among those older musicians is 17-year-old concertmaster Alexi Kenney from Palo Alto, who was 13 when he first auditioned for the Youth Orchestra. He became assistant concertmaster quickly and then what the British call the “leader,” occupying the first chair of the first violin section.

“The orchestra has had a profound impact on my growth as a musician and as a person over the past four years. I know that the friendships I have made, and the great memories of all the experiences — most memorably being conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and going on tour with soloist Julian Rachlin, performing in the Berlin Philharmonie and all over Germany — are ones I will keep forever,” says Kenney.

Eighteen-year-old Michelle Lee of Dublin, assistant concertmaster, works the second chair when associate concertmaster Alina Kobialka is not playing. Lee was “heavily involved” in competitive dance as a child, but shifted her focus to violin and became a member of the Youth Orchestra. She was thrilled with the overseas tour in her second year with the band.

Her rigorous violin schedule includes daily practice, weekly lessons, chamber duets or trios and classes at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Calling auditioning for the orchestra the best decision of her childhood, she says, “I have grown to thoroughly appreciate the rehearsals in a world-class venue, the coaching from San Francisco Symphony members, the sense of camaraderie and high level of talent, the opportunities to work with renowned guest conductors like MTT and Sir Simon Rattle, perform in the famous Berlin Philarmonie and Smetana Hall during our 2008 Summer European tour, or play Stravinsky’s “Firebird” violin solos in Davies in front of a packed audience.”


SF Symphony Youth Orchestra

Where: Davies Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $12 to $45
Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org

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