When the San Diego Symphony toured China in 2013, Sidney Yin was always in the background, observing what was going on, asking questions, helping whenever and wherever he could. n But Yin was not an orchestra musician or a symphony staff member; he was the artistic administrator of the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory.
The Youth Symphony, with the help of June Shillman, who was also instrumental in the San Diego Symphony’s trip to China, has now planned its own tour to celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2015. If the Youth Symphony is able to get enough of its musicians to commit, it expects to leave San Diego on June 23 to perform at the opening of the Summer Youth Music Festival in Beijing’s Forbidden City Concert Hall, play two concerts in Yantai, San Diego’s sister city, and conclude with a July 4 concert at Shanghai’s Oriental Arts Center.
The tour would be the orchestra’s second time visiting China (the first was in 1981) and its first international tour since 1998, when it performed in Eastern Europe.
“We’re seeing the tour as very celebratory,” music director Jeff Edmons said two weeks ago. “It’s a celebration of the institution, its artistic achievement, its collaborative nature, and its desire to share classical music, whether that be here, downtown, in a nearby community, or whether that be across borders.”
While seeking commitments from its musicians, the Youth Symphony continues to look for possible sponsors for the tour and is planning several free concerts in Balboa Park during 2015.
“We’ve been working to gather commitments from our musicians to participate in a tour to China since our Board of Directors approved the project in September,” said Dalouge Smith, the Youth Symphony’s CEO. “We’re looking forward to receiving their responses by the end of the month. … We’ll seek community partners and supporters to assist SDYS in achieving the full potential of this and all of our 70th anniversary events.”
You could say the San Diego Youth Symphony, which had been scheduled to preview the tour program in a free June 18 concert at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, one of several free concerts it will offer in Balboa Park during 2015, has never been more ready to go on tour.
It has made enormous strides since 1945, when it was founded by conductor Leo Scheer and operated under the auspices of the city’s Park and Recreation Department. The city also established its own ballet company, the San Diego Civic Youth Ballet, and soon afterward, a city-run youth theater program, now the San Diego Junior Theatre.
Those three organizations will contribute to the park’s 2015 Centennial Celebration with a joint exhibit on the history of youth performing arts in Balboa Park that launches with a performance Nov. 14, 2015, at the Casa del Prado Theatre.
In the ’90s, all three organizations became separate nonprofit entities, with the youth orchestra board hiring Edmons in 1996 as its first full-time conductor. At the time, the organization was a single, 60-member symphonic ensemble that former music director Louis Campiglia had developed during his 28-year tenure, which included 12 international tours. Edmons, however, was intent on broadening the Youth Symphony’s activities to include multiple ensembles and multiple kinds of ensembles.
“Certainly one of the most meaningful, foundational aspects of the organization is our desire to be holistic about music education,” said Edmons. “That’s one of the reasons why we have such a breadth of ensembles across all age ranges and all points of experience in classical music, both in terms of large ensembles and in terms of more intimate opportunities.”
Edmons has an ally in Smith, who joined as executive director in 2005 and encouraged Edmons and the board to stretch even further, beyond multiple ensembles, even beyond Balboa Park.
“Our board of directors was confronted with the fact we were serving a relatively narrow geographic part of San Diego County, and as we looked deeper into why that might be, we discovered that the availability of music learning outside that particular area, across the whole county, was variable.”
Smith and his board discovered that in many areas of the county, especially the South Bay, if students were receiving any music education, it wasn’t until seventh grade. The organization broadened its goals, which under Campiglia had been focused primarily on performance, to also include access.
“We believe that music education is a powerful, transformative experience, and every child should have the opportunity,” said Smith. “So we’ve established this vision to make music education affordable for all children in San Diego.”
That might seem a quixotic task, and when the symphony’s El Sistema-inspired Community Opus Project launched in the Chula Vista Elementary School District in 2010, it reached 65 students in two schools with a free, after-school music program.
A year later, the Community Opus Project served 200 students in six schools; then 450 students in seven schools. Last year, it reached 3,000-plus students in 18 schools.
“This year, there are seven schools with full-time music teachers (for the first time in 15 years), a full-time visual/performing arts resource teacher, and other school districts are now seeing that and asking, ‘How’s that happening? How can we do that?’?” said Smith.
“So we’re also consulting with the San Marcos Unified School District in their development of a new strings program, starting again with after school, but aiming to get it in school. And we’ve had conversations with other school districts as well, as far away as Chino.”
The students who want an experience beyond those school programs now participate in the Youth Symphony’s ensembles in Balboa Park, which now total 590 students and offer open, public rehearsals on the weekends.
Given its mission focus, the Youth Symphony was the grand prize winner of the national Boardsource/Prudential Leadership Award in 2012, and Boardsource (a resource organization for nonprofits) is now using the Youth Symphony as one of three case studies in its current “standforyourmission” campaign.
The organization is attracting attention in other quarters as well. It’s hardly an accident that inside the program booklet for the Youth Symphony’s 2014 spring concerts was a full-page ad for the famed Juilliard School of Music with the headline “Imagine … yourself here!”
“Whether or not our students become music majors, they will be able to look back on the experiences they’ve had here,” said Edmons. “They’ll remember how each one of those experiences may have had a unique impact on who they became as a musician and, more importantly, who they became as a person.”
Edmons is hoping that touring China will be one of those experiences.
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