An Ensemble of the World 

Over the past 40 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 at no cost, 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 Saint 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.  

Mentored by Master Musicians 

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 Wattis Foundation Music Director Daniel Stewart. In a recent article for the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman highlighted the guidance of San Francisco Symphony musicians Diane Nicholeris, Jill Rachuy Brindel, Jessica Valeri, Stephen Tramontozzi, and Adam Smyla as they coached the ensemble in the repertoire for its most recent European tour. 

The young musicians also get the invaluable experience of working and talking with many of the renowned artists and conductors who perform with the San Francisco Symphony, among them Yo-Yo Ma, Sir Simon Rattle, John Adams, Emanuel Ax, Ray Chen, Wynton Marsalis, and Midori. The San Francisco Symphony’s Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas also frequently coached and worked with the young musicians. In the summer of 1996, Tilson Thomas conducted the SFSYO and members of the Grateful Dead in radical music by John Cage, opening the San Francisco Symphony’s groundbreaking 1996 American Mavericks Festival. 

History & Music Directors 

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 as music director by David Milnes, Leif Bjaland, Alasdair Neale, Edwin Outwater, Benjamin Shwartz, Donato Cabrera, and Christian Reif. In 2019, Daniel Stewart was appointed as the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra’s Wattis Foundation Music Director. 

The Youth Orchestra Today 

Today, the orchestra features upwards of 100 musicians. Many more audition for the ensemble, which rehearses Saturday afternoons on the Davies Symphony Hall stage after working intensively 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 Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Highlights of the Youth Orchestra’s 11th international tour across six European cities included performances at Hamburg’s new Elbphilharonie and Vienna’s Musikverein, where the orchestra had the opportunity to play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in the same place where the concerto was premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic in 1881. The ensemble received glowing reviews for their performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 at Berlin’s Philharmonie.  

A Commitment to the Community 

The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra 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. In January 2024, the SFSYO hosted the ninth Bay Area Youth Orchestra Festival, presenting colleague ensembles on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall and benefitting organizations dedicated to the needs of underserved youth. 

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