Over the past 35 years, the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) has earned a reputation as one of the finest youth ensembles in the world. Founded in 1981 to provide pre-professional training to the Bay Area’s most gifted young musicians, the orchestra has toured Europe and Asia to rave reviews, winning the prestigious City of Vienna Prize at the International Youth and Music Festival in 1986 and performing to packed houses in the great halls of Europe, from Berlin’s Philharmonie to Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw to the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. It has played for Queen Elizabeth II of England and been featured on BBC radio. The orchestra’s acclaimed recordings include Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 recorded live at Davies Symphony Hall in 1994, a live recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 made at Prague’s Dvořák Hall in 1998, and most recently a live recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 at the Berlin Philharmonie.
The orchestra’s success is rooted in its innovative, tuition-free training program, which taps members of the San Francisco Symphony to coach the young musicians every week before the full ensemble rehearses with SFSYO Music Director Christian Reif. The players also get the invaluable experience of working and talking with many of the renowned artists and conductors who perform with the Symphony, among them Yo-Yo Ma, Sir Simon Rattle, John Adams, Emanuel Ax, Wynton Marsalis, and Midori. San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas works often with the Youth Orchestra, which opened the Symphony’s groundbreaking 1996 American Festival, playing John Cage’s radical music with the Grateful Dead under Thomas’s baton.
The Youth Orchestra played its inaugural concert in January 1982, led by founding Music Director Jahja Ling. The previous summer, Ling had spent twelve days auditioning hundreds of musicians from across the greater Bay Area, who ranged in age from eleven to twenty. He chose eighty-five. Ling was succeeded by other notable conductors: David Milnes, Leif Bjaland, Alasdair Neale, Edwin Outwater, Benjamin Shwartz, and Donato Cabrera. In 2016, Christian Reif was appointed as the San Francisco Symphony’s Resident Conductor and the Wattis Foundation Youth Orchestra Music Director.
Today, the orchestra features 108 musicians. Three times that many audition for the ensemble, which rehearses with Christian Reif Saturday afternoons on the Davies Symphony Hall stage after the Symphony coaches work intensively with the musicians in sectional rehearsals. The orchestra typically performs four concerts a year at Davies Symphony Hall in repertoire that ranges from Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony to Henze's Mänadentanz from his opera Die Bassariden.
The SFSYO is a vital part of the Bay Area’s rich cultural life. The Youth Orchestra has opened the Stern Grove Festival three times, performed for patients at Laguna Honda Hospital, played a benefit for Stanford Children’s Hospital, given an Earthquake Relief Concert for the Hollister School of the Arts, and performed at the opening of San Francisco’s Main Library.
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Associate Director - Youth Orchestra Program
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