"Their musicianship belies their age," says David Amado, referring to the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. "They're kids, but when they're onstage they give everything they've got. They have a wonderful spirit."
The SLSO Youth Orchestra was founded in 1970 by Leonard Slatkin, who at that time was assistant conductor under Walter Susskind. Slatkin saw the Youth Orchestra as an opportunity for young, talented, and dedicated musicians to grow.
For the past four years the Youth Orchestra has been led by Amado, who now serves as both associate conductor to the SLSO and music director of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra. However, he continues his affiliation with the Youth Orchestra as music advisor.
The SLSO's new assistant conductor‹and new Youth Orchestra conductor‹is Scott Parkman. Parkman continues an SLSO tradition, according to Peggy Neilson, the Youth Orchestra's manager. "The Youth Orchestra has a strong link with the SLSO and always has been led by one of the SLSO's assistant conductors," she explains.
The members of the youth orchestra range in age from 12 to 21. "While most are high school students from the St. Louis metropolitan area, a few do come from as far away as Columbia, Missouri, and Carbondale, Illinois," says Neilson.
"The Youth Orchestra is unlike most other orchestras," emphasizes Amado. "Because you're working with a different group of musicians every year, you can't build an ensemble as you do with a regular symphony orchestra. While some musicians may be here for a number of years, others may be here for only a year or two."
The Youth Orchestra rehearses once a week for about two-and-a-half hours. "They are students," Amado adds, "with very busy lives outside of the Youth Orchestra. I'm always amazed that they're able to do so many things."
Despite this, Amado makes no concessions to these young, less-experienced musicians. They play real music, not simplified versions. "It is important," he says, "that they play the best possible music. I try to bring them to the highest level possible; to challenge them constantly, and make them rise to a level that I know‹after all these years‹they are capable of." And rise they do! "When it comes time for a concert, they know what they have to do and they deliver," he says.
Auditions for the Youth Orchestra are held annually and are highly competitive. Some of those accepted serve as extras for the SLSO or other orchestras in the area. Nearly all go on to college and many pursue careers in music. Many members see the orchestra as a vital springboard to furthering their musical education, even leading to positions with orchestras in other cities.
Four Youth Orchestra alumni currently are members of the SLSO: Kristin Ahlstrom, associate principal, second violin; Rebecca Boyer, second violin; Felicia Foland, bassoon; and Mark Sparks, principal flute. Many alumni play with other orchestras as well.
"The Youth Orchestra is the highest quality professional musical experience a non-professional can have," says Foland, a Kirkwood High graduate. "Even though my high school had an excellent music program, the Youth Orchestra was like gilding the lily. Being led by an SLSO conductor and being mentored by SLSO members was an opportunity not otherwise available."
Scott Parkman, who in September took over as conductor of the Youth Orchestra, looks forward to working with these young musicians. Parkman's background includes more than ten years working with youth orchestras. "It is always exciting to work with a new group," he says. "Here in St. Louis we have the luxury of rehearsing and playing in the same location." Parkman finds the rehearsal process almost more important than the event itself. "I hope to foster a place where they not only learn about music but, as much as I'm able to, help them put elements of what they learn in rehearsal in the context of the rest of their lives. A measure of success will be if I am able to plant a kernel during these rehearsal periods that will stay with them and continue to grow as they grow," Parkman adds.
Amado takes pride in the Youth Orchestra. "People in the St. Louis region have preconceptions as to what a youth orchestra is," he says. "If they can shed that and come to a concert, they'll be astonished. In my opinion, the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra is the second-best orchestra in town. People should come," he concludes, "not just to see young musicians playing but to hear a good orchestra play good music. It really is a treasure."
Carl Moskowitz is a St. Louis-based freelance writer.