An Orchestra for the Young

Founded by Leonard Slatkin, the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra lays a foundation for success, in music or in medicine

By Benjamin Pesetsky

The St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra plays its first concert of the season this month at Powell Hall, with a program of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, and Clyne’s Abstractions (November 17).

For audiences, the SLSYO offers the best orchestral experience in the city short of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra itself, with free admission, and with the unique vitality of a young ensemble. And for its members, the youth orchestra offers a musical foundation for the rest of their lives, no matter what direction they go.

The orchestra’s players, ranging in age from 12 to 22, are selected by audition and rehearse each week during the school year at Powell Hall. They are led by Gemma New, who is the SLSO’s resident conductor, and they are regularly coached and mentored by players from the SLSO.

The SLSYO was founded nearly 50 years ago by a young conductor named Leonard Slatkin. Today he’s an eminent musician of international reputation: the music director of the Detroit Symphony, the former music director of the National Symphony in Washington, and the SLSO’s conductor laureate. But in 1968, he was the 24-year-old assistant conductor of the SLSO, and he was surprised to find that St. Louis wasn’t home to a regional youth orchestra. So within two years he built one from the ground up with the orchestra’s support, and still remembers it as one of his proudest accomplishments.

“To watch the creation of this was as satisfying as having a child,” Slatkin said in an interview by telephone. “I gave the downbeat—or in this case the upbeat—and I can’t remember a more satisfied feeling coming over me.”

At that time, Slatkin wasn’t so far removed from his own youth orchestra experiences, playing viola while growing up in Los Angeles (where he first waved a baton when the conductor had to take a call), and later conducting the New York Youth Symphony while he studied at the Juilliard School.

In St. Louis, it took a year to raise money and create a five-year plan for the new orchestra, but when the new ensemble launched in 1970, it created immediate excitement.

“We had over 500 people apply,” Slatkin recalled. “I think we had six weeks of auditions. One young lady came from Jefferson City, so people came from far and wide. We took maybe 125 musicians.”

There are now over 2,000 alumni of the SLSYO, including six members of the SLSO. Some have become professional musicians in other major orchestras around the country, and many more have gone into other careers—all the while enjoying the benefits of a formative orchestral experience.

The advantage of a serious music education, regardless of a student’s ultimate career, is something Slatkin firmly believes in and advocates for.

“Some have gone on to be conductors, orchestral ranks, or administration,” he said. “But they go on and have music as part of their life no matter what they do. There’s something valuable about having experience in the arts. The idea of making music with other people is so remarkable.”

Aaron Praiss, for example, is an SLSYO alumnus who graduated in 2009. He went on to complete degrees in both violin and biology at Northwestern University, and considered careers in both music and medicine. When he was admitted to medical school in New York, he settled on that path, and is now an obstetrics and gynecology resident at New York-Presbyterian - Columbia University Medical Center.

“Learning how to work in an orchestra setting is equivalent, if not more taxing, than playing a sport,” Praiss said. “There are so many things I learned working as a team that definitely play into what I do now. There are so many crossovers with those skills.”

His musical experiences are also helpful in his work with patients. “People recognize there’s something more human and normal about you if you have that background,” he said. “If I’m meeting someone for the first time, especially if they have children, it can make for some common ground with us. It’s nothing but a benefit.”

Though he plays less now than he did in high school or college, he has joined a community orchestra and enjoys New York’s vibrant concert life. Meanwhile, his younger sister, Lauren, serves as assistant principal viola of the SLSYO.

“That was the peak of any of my high school experiences in music,” Aaron Praiss said of the SLSYO. “It was such a rigorous group, the rehearsals were so involved, and I left those rehearsals feeling more like an adult. That space, that group, that conductor. It was where I was pushed to another level.”

Other SLSYO alumni can still be found at Powell Hall decades later. Violinist Rebecca Boyer Hall played in the youth orchestra in the late ‘70s, eventually becoming co-concertmaster, and was hired by the SLSO in 1993. (The other YO alumni in the SLSO are associate principal second violin Kristin Ahlstrom, bassoonist Felicia Foland, bassist Sarah Hogan-Kaiser, assistant concertmaster Erin Schreiber, and principal flute Mark Sparks.)

“It was such a high standard, that it felt professional already,” Hall wrote in an email, recalling her experience in the SLSYO. “We had to know the music well, learn to blend, in my case, lead....and what a joy to hear some of the playing that was going on around me in that beautiful hall!”

Slatkin still tries to work with the SLSYO when he’s in town to guest conduct the SLSO. In October, he conducted a rehearsal, and last November he led the youth orchestra in concert for Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.


He mused on the difference between conducting young people and professionals. “When you conduct a YO, you know a lot more than the musicians do,” Slatkin said. “And when you conduct a professional orchestra—at least when you’re starting out—the musicians know a lot more than you. It’s the difference between teaching and learning.”

He remains proud of the entire endeavor, and notes how it has been a boon to the larger orchestra and to musical life in St. Louis more generally.

“I think it brought some people onboard with the SLSO organization who didn’t have interest before,” he said. “Suddenly parents were bringing kids to the SLSO concerts. We did a lot to grow the musical community and hopefully we left it so everyone who played in it, no matter what profession they went into, remembers it with fondness.

The SLSYO season continues with free concerts at Powell Hall on March 4 and June 3, 2018.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer, writer, and publications consultant to the St. Louis Symphony.