Take a look at a map of the United States. Now, fill in the map with states where an alumnus of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra lives and you will have close to a fully shaded map.
On January 11, 2020, more than 90 alumni converged on St. Louis to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the YO for a special alumni play-in concert and celebration. They came from not just Missouri and Illinois, but Oklahoma, Arizona, Oregon, Virginia, New York, Kansas, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Indiana.
Over the course of this special day, alumni reconnected with old friends, reminisced about their years in the YO, and once again played on Powell Hall’s Emerson Concert Stage. The 50th anniversary event drew hundreds of people to Powell Hall for a free concert of works by Brahms, Sibelius, Shostakovich, and John Williams, conducted by Kevin McBeth, director of the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus. Everyone then enjoyed cupcakes and champagne in the Wightman Grand Foyer in recognition of one of St. Louis’ most enduring institutions for young people.
For the alumni, who shared stands with current YO members and SLSO musicians, this experience allowed them to recreate formative musical experiences from their youth.
“Being in the SLSYO was such an important part of my development,” said Sangeeta Swamy, who now teaches violin, viola, and music therapy at the college level. “My first audition wasn't successful, but the next year I was accepted, and by my senior year in high school, I became concertmaster.”
Former YO members have gone on to successful careers both within and outside the music industry, but they all agree about the importance of the YO for a developing musician. Many talked about the musical maturity they experienced as members of the YO—and also about the life lessons learned.
“I discovered the joy of being in an orchestra filled with kids who were not only exceptional musicians but also who shared the same passion and commitment to playing music as I did,” said Laura Woods, YO member from 1989-1996. “Youth Orchestra also introduced me to some of the most magnificent pieces of classical music that I might otherwise not come across until later in life or maybe ever.”
Woods enjoyed a 19-year career playing in five professional orchestras throughout the country. Beyond music, the YO instills fundamental skills that transcend time and career path.
See more photos from the alumni concert here.
“Playing in an orchestra as a young person is the best way I can imagine learning about teamwork,” said Carter Purcell, former YO Principal Flute, who now works in sustainable agriculture. “Learning to communicate, to play—even to just breathe—alongside another person, and create something together, gives you such a foundation of empathy and respect and awareness for others.”
That sentiment was shared by countless alumni:
Nathan Manno, clarinet, 2014-2016: “Being in the YO taught me that if you work together with people who share common goals, you will create something truly amazing.”
Allison Felter, horn, 1981-1983: “I commuted every Saturday from Columbia to St. Louis for the YO while an undergraduate. I loved and was so grateful for the experience. We went to Europe, competed in an international competition, and played concerts in Germany and Austria. Months before the tour, I vividly recall (YO Music Director) Catherine Comet describing the competition to the orchestra. With a steel gleam in her eye, she said, ‘And we will win!’ And we did.”
Tom Bruce, trumpet, 1971-1976: “After making a living as an orchestral trumpet player for almost 10 years, the YO is still the best orchestra I've ever played with.”
Gina Brunner McIsaac, oboe, 1990-1993: “I will forever remember being a young teenager and aware that I was a part of creating beauty for this world, larger than I could as an individual, as together we performed Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony and the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello.”
April Moon, violin, 2015-2019: “YO is a place to play music that has lasted lifetimes alongside true friends who will last a lifetime.”
Joseph Pastor, percussion, three-year member: “It was part of a well-rounded education that prepared me to do all that I have in my 25-year career. In my last year there I finally lived out my daydream of playing Holst's The Planets with the Youth Orchestra, a dream which had begun several years before I was even a member. I was moved to goose bumps while playing the snare drum part at the end of Shostakovich's First Symphony in my first season. I was on stage at Powell Symphony Hall every Saturday for three years, and then was allowed to sneak upstairs for evening concerts where I was inspired by one of the finest orchestras in the world.”
The March 15 concert features works by Dukas, Sibelius, and Rachmaninoff, conducted by YO Music Director Gemma New and SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève. On May 31, the YO welcomes the nationally syndicated radio program, From the Top, for an epic concert featuring the YO, soloists, host/pianists Lara Downes, musician interviews, and the premiere of a work written for the 50th anniversary of the YO by founding director Leonard Slatkin. To purchase tickets for these concerts, visit slso.org.
This story appeared in the March 2020 Playbill.