Symphonic Youth

Mike Lawson • Features • July 16, 2018

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School in Miami, Florida generally ends in late May or early June, not to start again until after Labor Day.

That meant that except for a week or two of individual school sponsored summer band camps, music was essentially over for the summer. That’s when I discovered the Miami Youth Symphony, auditioned, and was selected as one of their four clarinetists. The symphony rehearsed two nights a week and performed two evening concerts each summer under the direction of a legendary Florida musical director, Caesar LaMonaca.

Youth orchestras still fill that summer void of school music organizations and programs, but also have become their own universe as well.

Generally regarded as America’s first youth orchestra, the Portland Junior Symphony Association is now known as the Portland Youth Philharmonic (PYP). Established in 1924 in Portland, Oregon, it in fact was built on a local school orchestra, the Irvington School Orchestra, directed by Mary V. Dodge.

The Irvington orchestra was in turn built on an earlier Dodge-led youth orchestra, the Harney County Sagebrush Symphony, which performed from 1912 to 1917. From these early documented efforts it is estimated that there may now be as many as a thousand youth orchestras across the country. (Some say far more than that.) While the vast majority are independent, a survey in 2006 by the League of American Orchestras, indicated that about 20 percent of youth orchestras are affiliated with adult orchestras. Some of these adult orchestras are community groups, but many are the professional symphonies. For example, the PYP is actively supported by many Oregon Symphony members.

The importance of youth orchestras to the larger, adult community is further evidenced by an entire Youth Orchestra Division of the League of American Orchestras, the national organization of the professional, semi-professional, and community symphonies and orchestras. The League has just completed its 73rd annual National Conference in Chicago with the youth division offering its own sessions and activities.

What do these youth orchestras have in common? Most have multiple organizations that are based on age, experience and/or musical skill. These broaden the availability of the performing orchestra experience to the youth and also become feeder organizations for the premier group. The Portland Philharmonic has five units. These include two full symphonies, a chamber orchestra, wind ensemble, and a string orchestra. Over 300 members are placed and seated by audition, range from 7 to 23 in age and are drawn from over 100 schools across Oregon and Washington.

In similar fashion, one of the largest youth orchestra organizations, the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra (SYSO) also offers five levels of orchestras. These include their flagship Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, regarded as one of America’s premier youth symphonies. This unit regularly partners with the Seattle Symphony, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle Opera, various regional Broadway production, and choirs in performances.

The largest SYSO group is the Debut Symphony Orchestra which is made up of intermediate-level players and serves as a training group for the first two units. Introducing even younger and less experienced musicians to the orchestra technique and style is the Symphonette Orchestra, and rounding out this family of orchestras is the Prelude String Orchestra which focuses on beginning string players.

Each of these orchestras has its dedicated conductor, staff, rehearsals and performances, but all share virtually identical policies, dress code, and an operational handbook. These groups each meet on Saturdays for both full rehearsals and sectional rehearsing and/or coaching sessions.

Other SYSO unique, or originated, programs including in-school cooperative efforts, endangered instrument training, and inter-arts will be explored in future SBO articles.

A few cities actually have more than one youth orchestra. What differentiates these organizations, one from the other?

In Miami, Florida, the Greater Miami Youth Symphony exists along with the South Florida Youth Symphony. Here, amid an urban sprawl that actually has no end, the focus is primarily geographical. But, that said, the demographics are significantly different from South Dade County (Greater Miami Youth Symphony) to North Miami (South Florida Youth Symphony). The point of commonality is the lack of music education in many of the public schools across the metro Miami area. Many elementary and middle schools simply do not have any band or orchestra programs at all! These two orchestras are now collaborating on music outreach programs across the entire metro area.

The offerings and activities of these two organizations are actually quite similar.

They include multiple levels of orchestras and ensembles, as well as a series of summer music camps. Multiple locations, rather than a single central site, are utilized, facilitating access by students across the area. Some beginning level offerings even include the free use of instruments. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is also blessed with two youth orchestra opportunities, the Three Rivers Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (TRYPO) and the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra (PYSO). One significant difference from other locations is the Youth Chamber Connection (YC2), that works with both youth orchestras and the broader cultural community building a cooperative environment for all. YC2 has helped build an extensive summer music participation by linking with the Chautauqua (New York) Music Camp, a summer string workshop with Carnegie Mellon University School of Music, and Chatham College Music and Arts Daycamp that works with pre-K through ninth graders, and Maryland’s Frostburg State University Summer Music Academy.

These are all capped off with auditions for PYSO in early September. A variety of all-state and regional youth orchestras do exist, but most do not engage in any year-round education opportunities. Perhaps unnoticed in today’s globalized world are the travel opportunities that youth music participation now brings.

A generation ago, a trip of a few hundred miles to a high school or municipal auditorium would be the norm. Today’s music tours are culturally rich and intercontinental. The Three Rivers Young Peoples Orchestras (TRYPO) have just returned from their first international concert tour through Central Europe including performances in Prague, Czech Republic; Vienna, Austria; and Budapest, Hungary.

A small percentage of youth orchestras are affiliated with formal educational institutions. Among these is the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO- USA) which is an outreach of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. The NYO-USA was founded in 2012 and is a free annual summer program created and operated by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. Members are selected through a comprehensive audition process, brought to New York City area for an intensive three-week training residency, and then participate in the orchestra’s international concert tour for that year.

This year’s tour is to Asia following their bon voyage Carnegie Hall concert on July 19 featuring the world premiere of a Carnegie Hall commissioned Ted Hearne work, Brass Tacks, along with Gershwin’s Piano Concert in F and Sibelius Symphony No. 2. Concert tour sites this year begin with Taipei, Taiwan followed by Shanghai and Beijing, China, and Seoul and Daejeon, South Korea. This tour will expose these young musicians to the hub of the globalization issues of the day.

Students 16 through 19 years of age who are interested in participating in the National Youth Orchestra for 2019 should visit musicians/nyo-usa/apply/orchestra. The application process begins in September and involves completing an application form, and submitting a three-minute audition via the Acceptd digital audition platform, along with references. Specifically excluded from this orchestra are full time music majors in college. The program is free.

Last year, more than a thousand young musicians applied for the 2018 orchestra. Douglas Beck, director of artist training for Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute offered, “The talent found in the applicant pool is exceptional. Judges focus on tone/sound, intonation, rhythmic precision, and overall musicianship when deciding on candidates. This summer, 106 musicians were selected for the orchestra. The young players who make up the NYO-USA 2018 roster are some of the very best in the country. To be selected is a testament to the hard work, talent, and dedication of each student!”

A spring 2016 feature article by Chester Lane in Symphony magazine, the quarterly journal of the League of American Orchestras, summarized the value and role of youth orchestras by saying, “important is the fact that youth orchestras benefit young people in ways that go well beyond the music itself. There’s demonstrably strong correlation between participation in a youth orchestra, high academic achievement in high school, and future success in professional fields outside of music!”

A former music director and president of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra as well as former chair of the League’s Youth Division added, “Primarily, we are training these young people to be tomorrow’s leaders and contributors to their neighborhoods and communities in a very positive manner.”

And what about that Miami Youth Symphony of so many years ago and the Bayfront Park Amphitheatre where it performed? Well they’re scarcely a footnote on the biography of Caesar LaMonaca, the founder and director, and only noted briefly as an indirect predecessor of today’s Greater Miami Youth Symphony. Bayfront Park’s Bandshell, as it was then known, patterned and lighted like the more famous Hollywood Bowl in California, was demolished in the 1980’s. But the memories, concept, the inspiration and the music live on! And many of the alumni have left, and are continuing to leave, a legacy of community leadership.

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