The rehearsals are nearly as good as the concerts themselves. Sure, the acoustics of the space are incredible, but what’s truly awe-inspiring is listening to the sheer talent of some of Seattle’s most exceptional young musicians as they play the works of legendary composers. Each movement enraptures; a crescendo of pride swells in the audience as we sit, spellbound.
The Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra (SYSO) is the largest youth symphony in the United States, as well as one of the oldest. Last season marked its 75th anniversary, and its legacy is apparent. Since its inception it has grown into an organization of great renown, with a considerable range of programs for young musicians. From five orchestras, to two summer programs, partnerships with local schools and a conservatory, SYSO offers a breadth of opportunity for cultivating musicianship in Seattle to more than 1,800 students per year.
Admission is competitive; auditions include a combination of scales, a solo, and sight reading, and many talented prospects are turned away. For those admitted, the work can be grueling but the payoff is great.
Violinist Leeia Stroh eagerly anticipates SYSO rehearsals every Saturday. “Yes, I look forward to sitting in a chair for four hours doing the same three pieces over and over again. And yes, it can be very difficult at times,” she says. “But the coaches and the conductors make everything seem possible. Not only possible, but easy and fun. They break the hard spots down into just a few note spots, and drill us through them until it starts to sound like music.”
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
SYSO features some of the area’s best young musicians.
Of course, parental support is key. Providing encouragement, shuttling kids to rehearsals, keeping them on track with practicing, and setting up private lessons are just a few of the responsibilities families take on for their young musicians.
“Our family does a lot of weekend hiking, skiing and camping trips, and joining SYSO meant saying goodbye to family outings on Saturdays and weekdays,” says Leeia’s mom, Lucie Huang.
For Martha Reynolds, whose son Hugo plays the French horn with SYSO, the commitment felt natural: “We are a family of musicians. While pregnant with him, I routinely placed earphones on either side of my belly and played the Adagio movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major.”
Research on music education reveals a number of benefits, such as improved cognition and memory, teamwork skills, stronger academic performance and other advantages, compared to peers who are not exposed to music. Despite the benefits of arts education, many students around the country have suffered losses, as arts-based classes and programs are deemed expendable and cut from the school budget.
SYSO strives to close the music education opportunity gap through the Musical Pathways project, bringing classical music instruction to Seattle public schools where economic barriers have limited student exposure to the arts. Giving students in less affluent neighborhoods the opportunity to work with professionals at the top of their field is a core value of the organization.
The Endangered Instruments program, another one of SYSO’s educational initiatives, teaches lesser-taught orchestral instruments to interested players. Instruments like the viola and bassoon are often overlooked in favor of the violin or flute. By offering free instruction for these and other underexplored instruments, SYSO helps to maintain a robust assembly of players.
“Music is a human right,” says Juan Felipe Molano, the organization’s new musical director.
Born in Colombia, Maestro Molano is happy to call Seattle his new home.
“Seattle has been and will be an incubator for really talented people,” says Molano, citing other classical art forms such as ballet and opera, but also grunge rock and other alternative art forms that consider this city their birthplace. He believes that Seattle’s melting pot is also a strength of our city. “The immigrants in this part of the country are so diverse. Different cultures coming together in one place … the arts are [positively] affected by that.”
This cultural cornucopia is something he’d like to see a little more of in the SYSO’s repertoire as well. In the future, Molano would like to enhance the 18th- and 19th-century European artists who comprise the traditional canon by adding compositions from other cultural backgrounds — American, Asian and South American, for example — whose work is likewise brilliant, but lesser known. Molano believes that this will help to usher in an era of well-rounded musicians: “We need to remind the next generation that diversity and inclusion are so important.”
Although each individual member of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra is remarkable, the harmonies they produce will leave you speechless — giving credence to the belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Interested in seeing the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra live? Juan Felipe Molano’s debut concert with SYSO is Sunday, Nov. 17 at Benaroya Hall. Find details on that and other performances here.