My wife Georja Umano and I are regular reviewers of LA Opera, and we lament that we don’t go to LA Phil often enough. We’re also fans of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. So you’d think we’d have known there’s yet another virtuoso orchestra in town – the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. Apparently they’ve been performing for more than fourteen years, but I’m almost ashamed to admit I just found out about them a few months ago.
When I learned that their next concert would be this coming weekend, I thought here’s an opportunity to write a review. But, problem is, because of limited funding and other factors, their concerts are mostly semi-annual events. Yes, I could go this weekend, write a sensational review and get you readers all spun up – but then you might have to wait for months to have the experience yourselves.
So I did the next best thing. I cornered conductor Russell Steinberg, and I had him sit still for the proverbial twenty questions. While it’s not my critical take on this weekend’s performances, perhaps there’s enough here to inspire you to venture over to Zipper Hall on Saturday or to UCLA Schoenberg on Sunday to hear them play. See you there!
Gerald: Russell, how did the orchestra get started, and when?
Russell: The Los Angeles Youth Orchestra began in 1999 as a Jewish youth orchestra under the administration of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony with a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation. In 2000 it continued as the Stephen Wise Youth Orchestra under the sponsorship of the Stephen S. Wise Temple. In 2003 we renamed it the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra to reflect the extremely diverse demographics of our students. In 2009 during the financial recession, the temple withdrew its sponsorship. To continue, we became an independent nonprofit organization and created a board of directors.
Gerald: How did you get started with the orchestra?
Russell: I was asked by Noreen Green to conduct a Jewish youth orchestra at the newly completed Milken Community High School under a grant they received from the Jewish Community Foundation. But the grant was only for one semester. After that, Rabbi Zeldin and Metuka Benjamin of the Stephen S. Wise Temple agreed to help continue the orchestra.
Gerald: How are performers selected, what is their age range, and where do they come from?
Russell: Audition requirements are two years of study with a private teacher. Our age range is roughly 8-18. Students come from all over the greater Los Angeles area, sometimes as far away as Long Beach in the south and Oxnard in the north. The orchestra tends to attract very intelligent, driven students. Some of them are very serious musicians who are headed for music schools, but most have other passions, music being just one of them.
Gerald: How do you make your music selections for the concerts?
Russell: Selecting music for a youth orchestra is an art in itself because the group of students and instrumentation changes each semester. I choose music for its quality and variety. We have two levels of orchestra. For the intermediate Concert Orchestra, I often make arrangements that will custom-fit our group or that will allow them to perform symphonic music not ordinarily available for their level. For instance, I’ve arranged the rarely performed but masterful first five Haydn symphonies for intermediate level. I will also program film music arrangements for contrast. A few years ago we performed a piece I composed in protest of traffic that used contemporary techniques, called (appropriately) 405 : 8am [named for the freeway at the peak of morning rush hour]. For this concert, we are playing a wonderful contemporary piece called “Little Suite” by local California composer John Biggs who will be present at the concert. For the advanced Chamber Orchestra, I have to choose music that fits its instrumentation. This semester we had a more limited wind section, so I programmed Mozart’s Haffner Symphony.
Gerald: Who funds the orchestra, and what can people do to support it?
Russell: The orchestra is funded by private donations, grants, tuition, and ticket sales. Scholarships are provided for students with financial need. Since the orchestra is not connected with any other school or foundation, tax-deductible donations are what keep us going. And of course, simply attending our concerts April 6 and April 7 would be a wonderful way to show support while having a great time.
Gerald: What do you personally find most fulfilling about your work with the orchestra?
Russell: Without a doubt, the most fulfilling part of my work with the orchestra is the process of studying great music with our enthusiastic and passionate students. We all give up our Sundays to rehearse with great intensity. By the time we get to the culminating concerts, we have had a tremendous journey that means a great deal to everyone.
The orchestra’s next two concerts will be Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 4 pm at UCLA Schoenberg Hall in Westwood and on Monday, April 7 at 7:30 pm at Zipper Hall at the Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles. Get more information at www.losangelesyouthorchestra.org or by calling (310) 571-LAYO (5296).