The Spokane Youth Symphony continues its seasonlong celebration of its 70th anniversary this weekend with “70 Years of Education.”
The Sunday concert at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox will feature four ensembles playing works ranging from Felix Mendelssohn’s Nocturne from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
The concert also will feature guest soloist Yesong Sophie Lee, who will play Ludwig van Beethoven’s Romance in G and Romance in F with the Spokane Youth Symphony Orchestra, the most advanced of the symphony’s ensembles.
“Sometimes when people hear ‘Spokane Youth Symphony,’ the assumption is it’s one orchestra and it’s one very elite group,” said Jennifer O’Bannan, executive director of the youth symphony.
In reality, it’s four orchestras that play progressively more difficult material, she said. Students audition for a spot, and the groups rehearse Monday nights throughout the school year for two or more hours.
The groups play four concerts each season. The current season kicked off in November with “70 Years of Inspiration.” In March, the theme will be “70 Years of Virtuosity,” which will highlight the winners of the annual concerto competition. The season will conclude in May with “70 Years of Celebration.”
The youth symphony got its start in fall 1949. It was originally called the Spokane Junior Symphony, and some of its first members were the children of Spokane Symphony musicians, O’Bannan said. From there, it’s grown, adding ensembles and changing its name.
O’Bannan was a member of the youth symphony herself. Her family moved to Spokane when she was a teenager in the 1970s. At the time, there were two orchestras, and she played viola in the advanced group for two years.
“For me personally, it was a real period of growth and opportunity that kept me going in a direction I may not have without it,” she said.
She went to college where she earned a degree in viola performance. As an adult, she was a music teacher working with students who were members of the youth symphony. That led her to a spot on the group’s board and then a staff position.
“It’s been a big part of my life,” she said. Her experience fits the organization’s hope for all its student musicians, that the youth symphony offers a place for them to learn, grow and belong.
“The hope is that we give them a chance to connect with others who have the same passion,” O’Bannan said. And the four conductors – John Marshall, Jerilynn Harris, Roberta Bottelli and Philip Baldwin – “They just do the greatest job with the students.”
They’re all musicians and educators, either at an area university or Spokane Public Schools. “They’re kind, but they’re excellent, which is really a great combination for raising up musicians,” she said.
At some rehearsals, the students work in sections with coaches, usually players from the Spokane Symphony. The program charges tuition, though it only covers about half the cost, O’Bannan said.
To make up the rest, there’s fundraising. There’s also tuition assistance for those who can’t afford the fees and help with private lessons. “We try to make it possible because we know not everyone who has the passion has the finances,” she said.
During this season, the group isn’t just celebrating its first 70 years – it’s also looking forward. After years of working out of her home, O’Bannan said the youth symphony now has an office.
And it’s looking to expand its programs. This year there’s an Intermediate Honor Wind Ensemble for the first time, which started rehearsals this week. The group will have a concert in March. And O’Bannan hopes to do more with small chamber groups.
“Our orchestras are growing right now, but it could be much bigger,” she said. “I feel like there’s many more kids in our community who could benefit.”
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