On the evening of December 4, 1970, Leonard Slatkin took up the baton and gave the downbeat to Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, in an arrangement by Stokowski, and so began the premiere performance of the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra (YO). This month, 35 years to the day, Scott Parkman led the latest edition of the YO in the premiere of a fanfare by composer Robert Pound, written to commemorate this very special anniversary. It was followed by works of Rossini, Mozart, Liszt, and others; a demanding program, which is part of the YO tradition.
Now that the YO has grown into its thirtysomething years, it's appropriate to look back and hear from just a few of the many, many people for whom the YO experience remains a central part of their lives. Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra musicians Kristin Ahlstrom, Becky Boyer Hall, Sarah Hogan, and Felicia Foland are all YO alumni (as is Principal Flute Mark Sparks). Slatkin, who is now Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., founded the YO. David Loebel served as the orchestra's Music Director, as well as SLSO Assistant Conductor, before he accepted his current position as Music Director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Scott Parkman leads the young musicians today. Common among these recollections, memories, and anecdotes is a sense of joy and pride, and hope for the future.
Leonard Slatkin, SLSO Conductor Laureate, National Symphony Orchestra Music Director, YO founder
"I grew up playing in a youth orchestra in Los Angeles. One of the first things I discovered when I came to St. Louis was that the city didn't have anything like that. What was then the Women's Association (now the Volunteer Association) was very excited about the prospects, as was Edie Hoagland (first YO manager). She worked very hard to get the initial word out and we ended up with more than 600 musicians for the first audition, from which we chose 120 for the ensemble.
"At the first rehearsal you could feel the electricity on stage. We began with Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor in an arrangement by Stokowski. When I gave the downbeat for the bass instruments there was nothing like it. There's nothing like the look on the faces of children who have just realized what they are capable of doing."
Sarah Hogan, SLSO Double Bass
"I don't have a memory of my first audition. I remember after, there were two other guys in my high school who had auditioned. I was placed a chair ahead of them‹I was a freshman and they were juniors. They didn't want a girl ahead of them, especially a freshman girl. I remember the first rehearsal I was sitting in front of one of those guys, rehearsing Les Préludes and being a little nervous and a little lost.
"David Loebel was very friendly and jovial in rehearsals. He made it a very happy and welcoming place to be. I'm sure he was stern sometimes, but I only remember him being very encouraging. I also remember him being very clear, very easy to follow."
David Loebel, former YO Music Director, current Music Director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra
"I can still see the look on nearly every young person's face when he or she entered Powell Hall for the first time. The first rehearsal was always incredible."
Kristin Ahlstrom, SLSO Associate Principal Second Violin
"My first year in the Youth Orchestra was in 1985. I was last chair, first violins. My first season we played the Mahler Symphony No. 1. Years later when I joined the SLSO, we recorded the Mahler 1 with Maestro Hans Vonk.
"The repertoire was always challenging. I played all of those pieces again professionally. The leadership opportunities I had were definitely helpful toward my current position. I remember when Leonard Slatkin conducted us. He did Hovhaness's Mysterious Mountain. That was really thrilling."
"The one program that sticks out in my mind is when we celebrated the 25th anniversary ten years ago. It was also Leonard's last year as Music Director and he conducted. It was this terrific event that provided both a look back and a look forward. I remember he stood backstage and signed programs for every single one of those kids who asked."
Becky Boyer Hall, SLSO Second Violin
"It's for real. And not only did we play major repertoire, but we played it well. It wasn't the high school orchestra. I was blown away by the level of artistry in the Youth Orchestra. When Leonard started [the YO] he did not mess around. Over my time there were so many talented people."
Felicia Foland, SLSO Bassoon
"We did a number of pieces that were challenging, but it was assumed that we would play this kind of music.
"A really neat factor about the Youth Orchestra, for a kid who is really into classical music‹a real music nerd‹it gives you this place where others are just like you."
"One thing that impressed me was being around all the other students who were so excited and into their instruments. They were geeky in the same way that I was. They had the same relationship to their instruments. We formed a bond that I didn't have at school. It was so great to find someone who understood why you took lessons and practiced."
Becky Boyer Hall
"I was so green. I had a late start. I was used to playing country fiddle and tapping my foot. Gerhardt Zimmerman stopped rehearsal one day and said, 'Miss Boyer, I don't care if you tap your foot so long as you do it in time.'
"I was concertmaster when we went to the British Isles and Scotland. We played six nights in a row through England and then got into Aberdeen late at night. There was an international orchestra we were to audition for once we were there. We got Spam and stewed tomatoes for dinner. We were told we would audition the next morning at 8 a.m. Zimmerman told them, 'You will delay auditions for a day or you will not have our musicians for your orchestra.' So they were delayed.
"I shook Jimmy Carter's hand on the riverfront at the base of the Arch. They just called the Youth Orchestra up the day before he was here and said, 'Can you play a concert?'‹and everybody showed up.
"The Youth Orchestra opened up the world. It opened my career. I had to stop tapping my foot though."
"YO gave me the dream of being a professional musician. I came to know what it was like to play on that stage, and having that knowledge made me want to play on it again. The last concert of my senior year I really tried to hope that it wouldn't be the last time, just as at the end of my final audition for the SLSO last spring I hoped it wouldn't be my last."
"I recently was clearing out a lot of old stuff at my parents' house and I found all these letters relating to the Youth Orchestra and all these old programs. I was gratefully reminded of all that was done for me back then. The Volunteer Association was involved in so many fund-raising activities for the Youth Orchestra‹everything from buying a xylophone to giving scholarships. I was given a scholarship to Interlochen through them. When I look out on the audience and see all the people who give us support, and think of how my parents supported me, I'm in touch with this great sense of gratitude. It's really tough being a classical musician and when we're young we really need that much support. Now as a symphony musician I understand that these people help us get there. I'm very much aware of that."
"The YO provides two levels of value. First, a small handful of students will go on to make a go at being professional musicians. For them, it's an early look at music-making at a high level. You're associating yourself with the crème de la crème. We always tried to replicate the experience of a professional musician. You're expected to be prepared and to work together.
"Most of the orchestra members will not go on to play professionally. They become the supporters, the audience, the advocates that believe in the value of a great symphony. They spread the gospel of music. And when they are parents they will encourage their children to discover this music.
"You learn to dedicate yourself to something larger than yourself. You learn to depend on others as they depend on you. You express the depths of yourself as an artist even as you sublimate yourself to the expression of the whole orchestra. If that isn't a model for community, I don't know what is."
Becky Boyer Hall
"Most of the people [in YO] didn't go into musical careers, but they are in very high-level professional careers: doctors, lawyers, movie producers. Talent and discipline can take you a long way in life."
Scott Parkman, current Youth Orchestra Music Director and Conductor
"In planning for a celebratory year, I wanted to have premieres in each of our three programs. My good friend Robert Pound has written a 35th-anniversary fanfare for our first concert in December. I have a piece as well. I thought a lot about how performances happen in 2005. Performers most often interpret other people's music. I thought if Mozart came back today and listened to a performance of Dvorák, Tchaikovsky, and Bartók, he'd probably enjoy it. And then he'd ask, 'What about your music?'
"Performing in Jefferson City on Citizens' Day at the Legislature is also important for us this year. And with David Robertson having such an interest in the Youth Orchestra, the fact that he is conducting the last YO concert this season is also special. The wonderful soprano Christine Brewer will sing on that program. It was her idea to perform with the YO, and she selected Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915.
"A friend said to me recently, 'If that's what you're doing for the 35th, whatever are you going to do for the 40th?'"
"There's the thrill of knowing the YO survived and continued‹that it was considered important enough that people wanted to keep it going. I feel a sense of pride, and humility, too. When I look back on all the time I spent in St. Louis, this is clearly on the top of the list‹where I know I did the right thing."
Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.