S.F. Symphony Youth Orchestra turns 25

To call it “one of the finest youth orchestras in the world” is not just a publicity slogan or a matter of civic pride. The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, celebrating its own 25th birthday Sunday with a Davies Hall performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, has had praises heaped on it by stern critics around the world.

The late Stephanie von Buchau, a famously exacting writer, once compared the SFS Youth Orchestra and the visiting Chicago Symphony, conducted by Georg Solti, and found in favor of the young ones, who gave their all while the Chicago appeared tired and routine. Eyebrow-raising as that might have been, I stand by my own, only slightly less hyperbolic review a decade ago: “No ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ on the silver screen, SFSYO is a living, breathing, entirely real organization.

Also, it’s more miraculous than Hollywood could ever dream about.

At its Saturday concert in Davies Hall, the Youth Orchestra played the music of Christopher Rouse, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Richard Strauss and Johannes Brahms with the skill and artistry of most ‘grown-up’ orchestras anywhere. And yet, these musicians, under the knowing and supportive baton of Alasdair Neale, are high school kids.

Not only that, but many of them are musicians from schools without music education. It’s from those post-Proposition 13 musicless public schools (as well as from more fortunate private schools) that the Youth Orchestra selects some 100 teenagers from around the Bay.”

Education — a less glamorous matter than the Youth Orchestra’s acclaimed visits to Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Vienna’s Musikverein and Paris’ Théâtre des Champs Élysées, performances before Queen Elizabeth II, and at the United Nations’ 40th anniversary gala — is nevertheless at the heart of the SFSYO’s work.

The young musicians receive weekly training and coaching sessions from SFS orchestra members, in addition to their many individual, section and ensemble rehearsals. For each of its 25 consecutive seasons, Youth Orchestra auditions selected more than 100 musicians, ages 12 to 21, from various neighborhoods, of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds.

Allowing for multiyear memberships, there are now well over 1,000 young musicians whose careers and lives have been impacted by the Youth Orchestra.

Says SFSYO Music Director Benjamin Shwartz: “By the end of our intense rehearsals process, the SFSYO performs at a level with the top five orchestras in the state. Our concerts are not simply events for people who support youth, education and the arts. They are artistic statements that present the heart of music: passion, love, truth, hope, despair, triumph and everything in between.”

SFS Director of Education Ron Gallman emphasizes the opportunities provided by the program, including “access to a full range of resources normally available only to large professional orchestras — the SFS’s artistic resources, including Music Director Benjamin Shwartz, visiting guest artists, members of the SFS who act as coaches and mentors to the YO, and of course, MTT, who provides oversight; a professional concert hall; a top-notch administrative team; and professional stage technicians.”

Past Youth Orchestra music directors include Jahja Ling (founder), David Milnes, Leif Bjaland, Alasdair Neale and Edwin Outwater.
A few of the many now-famous alumni: Annie Li, concertmaster of Symphony Parnassus; Jaz Sawyer, CEO of Pursuance Records; Matt Haimovitz, professor at McGill in Montreal, records for DGG; Jeff Zeigler, cellist with Kronos String Quartet; Zacharias Grafilo, first violinist with Alexander String Quartet; Lisa Takemoto, production manager at Lincoln Center; Nat Stookey, composer.

Charles Chandler, Elbert Tsai, and Cathryn Down are now members of SFS proper. Timothy Genis is with Boston Symphony; David Jones is principal clarinet with Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra; Matthew Muckey is with New York Philharmonic; Philip Munds is principal French horn with Baltimore Symphony; Demian Austin is principal trombone with Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.


San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $10 to $75; limited availability
Contact: (415) 864-6000

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