Jeff Edmons is retiring from the San Diego Youth Symphony after 25 years as music director
BY KARLA PETERSON
JULY 31, 2021 5 AM PT
Like many of the thousands of students who have played with the San Diego Youth Symphony during music director Jeff Edmons’ 25-year tenure, Anthony Do-Hoon Kim became very familiar with some important musical names. Tchaikovsky. Dvorak. Strauss.
Elmo Edmons was a self-taught musician whose piano improvisations kept his grandson entranced for hours. When Jeff Edmons had the chance to take music lessons in elementary school, Grandpa Elmo gave his grandson his own violin.
And when the Edmons wanted to motivate his young musicians through another marathon rehearsal, he turned to the memory of the man who taught him the joy of giving your all to the music you love.
“I remember having lots of laughter in rehearsals listening to his Grandpa Elmo stories,” said Kim, who spent two years playing violin and viola in the San Diego Youth Symphony as a high school student and is now one of the program’s conductors.
“Mr. Edmons is so intense, and he exerts himself so much at the podium. You would look at him, and he would be sweating. And then he would stop and share a story about his grandfather and his training. That really stayed with me. He wasn’t strict, but he knew how to create respect toward the music and the art.”
Earlier this month,the Balboa Park-based organization announced that Edmons would be stepping down from the podium for personal and health reasons. The 2021-22 season will go on without him, but his devotion to bringing music and music education to as many young people as possible is a permanent part of the youth symphony’s DNA.
That passion isn’t going anywhere.
“When Jeff got here, it was a smaller, and much more elite organization that took a certain type of student,” said Michael Remson, the youth symphony’s president and CEO. “Now, we are very different. We take children who have never held an instrument in their lives, and we can place them in a program that is perfect for them. Any child has a home here, and I think it’s Jeff’s legacy that it will always be like that.”
Born in Terre Haute, Ind., and raised in Ohio, Edmons came to the San Diego Youth Symphony in 1996 after teaching music at schools in Ohio and Los Angeles, including Loyola Marymount University. Edmons was hired as the youth symphony’s music director after a yearlong international search. It took him just a few minutes to know that he was in the right place for all of the best reasons.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” the 56-year-old Edmons said from his home in Escondido. “I remember the wonderful engagement the students had with each other. I remember the friendships that shone through in their music. I remember the wonderful parents who made music possible for the students, the organization itself, the board and all of the incredible community support.
“For me, it was an inspiration to work with such incredible students from the very first time I stepped on the podium.”
Despite all of his years conducting here and as a guest conductor with youth, collegiate and professional orchestras in the U.S. and abroad, Edmons thinks of himself as an educator first. But he is also a grateful music student who will always remember the name of his first teacher. (Here’s to you, Miss Zbin.) And during his 25 years with the youth symphony, the organization made music education and outreach a real priority.
The youth symphony has grown from two to 13 ensembles serving as many as 700 students a year. Its Opus Project helped bring music education to children in the Chula Vista Elementary School District, and the organization has also worked with in-school music teachers in City Heights.
Edmons also pushed for the introduction of classes in music theory and conducting, and he helped institute annual concerto competitions. He led the youth symphony on multiple international tours, including a 1981 tour of China and a return trip in 2015.
“I think what made him a good teacher was his relentlessness,” said Kim, who joined the youth symphony in 2001, when he was a junior at La Jolla High School. “He had such a clear vision of what he wanted that we followed him. There was no wavering from the artistic vision that he set. Not just for himself, but for the orchestra.
“He was always about reaching that goal, and we always felt when we performed that we had really achieved something.”
When Edmons was asked how he wanted to mark the end of his 25 years with the San Diego Youth Symphony, he did not want a party or a public tribute. He wanted to help young people achieve something. The result is a fund that will provide microgrants for students who want to improve themselves and their communities.
It is called the “SDYS Student Leadership and Community Service Fund.” Edmons would call it returning the favor.
“I really believe that students are the greatest teachers, you know?” Edmons said. “They are so talented in so many ways. They are outstanding musicians. They are leaders on their school campuses. They are outstanding in so many fields. Their examples of kindness and dedication and friendship is the greatest example of teaching.”