Two new faces in the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra come from a world away

The St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra kicks off its 49th season this November, continuing a tradition of nurturing talented young musicians from the St. Louis region – and this year, from as far away as the Kurdistan region of Iraq.


Lawan Ali at rehearsal.

Under the direction of St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Resident Conductor Gemma New, who makes her New York Philharmonic debut at Lincoln Center next month, the YO will present three free concerts of expert-level repertoire beginning on November 18.


This year, the YO also welcomes two international students from the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Diyar Jamal, a 20-year-old double bassist from Erbil, and Lawan Taha Hama Ali, a 22-year-old violinist from Suleymaniyah, joined the YO through a collaboration with American Voices and Saint Louis University. Serving as a cultural bridge, American Voices supports musicians in nations emerging from conflict. As the only American partner city for this unique partnership, the SLSO began hosting international students in 2009 through its Music Without Boundaries program. The SLSO, American Voices, and Saint Louis University partnered to provide housing for Jamal and Ali as they study in the United States and perform with the SLSYO.


They are the first international students to join the YO since the 2015/2016 season.

John Ferguson, Executive Director and Founder of American Voices, said, "American Voices is extremely honored to offer a scholarship opportunity for Diyar and Lawan in conjunction with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Saint Louis University. This significant award helps boost their confidence and provides them inspiration and education to realize their dreams in developing innovative music. By alleviating the financial burdens needed to compete at an international level, students are able to focus on their studies, and create positive impacts not only for themselves, but for society at large. We appreciate the long-standing friendship with SLSO and SLU in helping students pursue their dreams."

In addition to three concerts each season, the YO offers its student musicians a well-rounded musical experience to develop participants into lifelong musicians. Youth musicians receive regular coaching and mentoring from the world-class musicians of the SLSO. Select YO members also participate in a peer-to-peer mentoring program, which pairs them with younger music students in the St. Louis area.


Maureen Byrne, SLSO Senior Director, Education and Community Partnerships, said, "One particular aspect of the YO that is highly valued by YO musicians is the amount of time they get to spend learning from some of the top professional orchestral musicians in the country. The YO musicians get to have regular coaching sessions with SLSO musicians, and this not only helps them refine their playing and musicianship skills, but it creates an excellent mentorship environment that makes the YO a unique music education opportunity."


Formed in 1970 under SLSO Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin, the YO is a high-level ensemble for musically-accomplished students. Approximately 100 musicians ages 12 to 22 from dozens of schools in the bi-state region form the YO, with some traveling more than 100 miles for weekly rehearsals throughout the year. Membership to the YO is by audition only. Since its inception, more than 2,100 student musicians have played in the ensemble. Six former YO members hold positions in the SLSO. Planning is under way to celebrate the YO's 50th anniversary season in 2020.


The 49th season of the YO opens with Dvořák's Carnival Overture, which tells the story of the jubilance of the human spirit. The November 18 program also includes Sibelius' ode to his homeland in Finlandia and closes with Brahms' Symphony No. 1.


The second YO concert, scheduled for 1:00pm, Saturday, March 23, 2019, opens with Abigail Richardson-Schulte's GO! and Smetana's tone poem Die Moldau. Verdi's La forza del destino (The force of destiny) Overture and Tchaikovsky's triumphant Symphony No. 5 round out the program.

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