The St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra: 50 Years On

By Tim Munro

This season, the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra celebrates its 50th birthday. In honor of the anniversary, I talked to the YO’s founder, Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin, about his memories of the ensemble’s earliest days. Note: Questions have been removed, and responses have been edited for length and clarity.


Beginnings

In 1968, I began my association with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra as Assistant Conductor. When I arrived, I was very surprised to learn that there wasn’t a youth orchestra for the city, since most major cities had some sort of youth orchestra.


I was a member of a couple [of youth orchestras] when I was playing viola in Los Angeles. So I knew firsthand what playing with other young musicians meant: coming together, making music together. Learning the joy of creating music as an ensemble.


Within the first few weeks, I searched for a way to set up a youth orchestra in St. Louis. It took a lot of organization. The group that has become the Symphony Volunteer Association got behind the idea and raised the necessary funds. The orchestra donated the use of the hall, and we announced the project.


A stipulation

We had about 550 applicants [in that first year], and I think we accepted maybe 120. There was a stipulation that I put in, that anybody in the youth orchestra had to be part of their school’s music program.


Three young people came from schools where there was no music program. What happened was that each of those schools created a music program in their schools. That’s how much it meant, to give the school a sense of pride, that their student had made it into something important.


Day one

That first rehearsal arrives. All these young people and parents arrived. One player came from about 120 miles away.


We started with the Stokowski transcription of the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. I cannot remember a moment in my whole life that meant as much as that moment. Here was something that hadn’t existed before.


That spirit present at the first rehearsal—that same energy—continues to this day. [And to celebrate the anniversary of that first YO rehearsal,] I’m writing a piece for YO based on that very first piece that we rehearsed. It’s called Bacchanalia.


It was a fledgling group. We were trying to figure out who they were, what they would do. With rehearsals on Saturday, sometimes the winds and brass would be required to play for the football games at their high school. We didn’t want anybody to disrupt the activities of the school.



Selling an idea

Nobody knew quite what to make of this group—what it really meant. A lot of my job was selling it as something important and valuable.


I remember explaining, as I still do, that these young people may not go into music or the arts in their careers. [But these players] learn the spirit of real teamwork and cooperation: how to be part of a group, to create something for an audience.


These young people have a chance to understand people from different backgrounds—in wanting to be a part of something, they learn from those around them.


Heroes behind the scenes

The administrators faced the greatest challenges. They had to become mothers and fathers and psychologists and teachers. Young people have growing pains, and those things affect them onstage.


The original manager, Edith Hoagland, was a mother to all of them. She was concerned about every young person’s personal life as well as their musical life. And they loved her. I think they would tell her about their uncertainties, things they weren’t sure about confiding in others.


Guest directors

The SLSO’s Music Director at the time, Walter Susskind, would come and work with the YO. Gradually, the SLSO’s guest conductors would come and work with them.


It’s a whole different way of working. You have to change your rehearsal technique: you become more of a teacher; you have to gauge the strength of the orchestra, because it changes each year. You have to build the confidence with the young people and the audience that comes to hear them.


A future

The ensemble continued, year after year. The financial support became better. The public took to it; the youth orchestra has become very important in this community.


Now, each year, I conduct a rehearsal, and the level has improved so much. Some of the musicians who are youngsters in the YO have gone on to become members of orchestras around the world, including several in the SLSO.


Most of us don’t remember much from our formative years, but everyone remembers being in a youth orchestra. It remains the greatest joy for those young people to have made music together, to have understood this special world.

This article appears in the January 2020 Playbill.

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