Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra celebrates 70 years instrumental to young musicians’ success

By Deanna Duff
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Elaine Joen performing with SYSO as assistant concertmaster. (Photo from Seattle Youth Orchestra)

Bows glide across violins as fingers tap out compositions on trumpets. As the symphony warms up at Benaroya Hall, the musicians’ dedication and focus is clear. Many practice daily to play Mozart and Shostakovich, and audiences frequently jump to their feet applauding the masterful performances.

What’s more impressive is that many of the musicians aren’t even old enough to drive. The Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra proves that talent is ageless.

The Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra (SYSO) is currently celebrating the 70th anniversary of its first performance in 1943. Founded in 1942 during the dark days of World War II, it became a beacon of hope for the Seattle community. In continuous operation since then, SYSO is the largest youth symphony in the United States. Professional musicians teach and conduct over 1,500 students from ages 7 to 24 years old annually.

“Today’s young people want to explore music. Look at their iPods and the music is all mixed up together. There isn’t a big difference to them between classical music, hip hop, rock, and jazz, so there is a huge demand for what we offer,” said Dan Petersen, SYSO executive director.

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SYSO Maestro Stephen Rogers Radcliffe conducts the Seattle Youth Symphony in Benaroya Hall. (Photo from Seattle Youth Orchestra)

Young musicians from the Puget Sound area participate in SYSO’s four primary programs, which progress from entry-level to expert. The programs includes Symphonette, Debut, Junior, and Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras. Applicants consistently exceed available spots. With additional resources, Petersen estimates that SYSO could currently support two additional orchestras.

In addition to nearly 40 regular season concerts, SYSO hosts competitions and events, such as the Marrowstone Summer Festival. They also partner with Seattle Public Schools to provide classical music instruction.

“Whether students eventually work at Boeing or Microsoft, become music teachers or professional musicians, music becomes an integral part of who they are,” said Petersen. “It’s part of their identity and they always appreciate and value it.”

Mae Lin, who is 30 years old and currently a Seattle Symphony Orchestra violinist, began playing at age 8 and joined SYSO a year later. The experience not only laid the foundation for her career, but also provided lasting memories and relationships.

“I remember going to rehearsal every Saturday and carpooling with friends,” said Lin, who grew up in Bellevue and now serves on the SYSO Board of Directors. “Most of them aren’t musicians anymore, but we still hang out and get together every Christmas. We talk about the good times in SYSO. It’s an incredible bonding experience.”

She credits her SYSO training as instrumental to her admission and success at The Juilliard School, where she earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“I relate playing music to playing sports,” said Lin. “You can practice all you want on your own, but playing together is a team effort. It’s different in a symphony situation because you have to learn quickly, watch the conductor, and learn to play and blend with others. Because of SYSO, that already felt natural to me and helped in college.”

It’s the rigorous orchestra experience that attracts and encourages student participation. In regular public or private school music programs, most SYSO student musicians outpace their peers. SYSO provides an atmosphere that pushes student potential.

“It’s definitely challenging because SYSO attracts such talented people from all over the state,” said Elaine Jeon, an 18-year-old senior at Sammamish’s Skyline High School. “It’s motivation to get me to practice. This is my seventh year and there are always younger musicians coming up behind me. I have to keep improving, so I don’t fall behind.”

Jeon began playing violin at age 5 and joined SYSO after moving to the United States from Korea. Approximately 40 percent of SYSO students identify as Asian. Among her friends, Jeon has become an ambassador for classical music.

“My friends go through my iPod and maybe recognize Beethoven, but have to ask, ‘Who are these other people?’ ” said Jeon, who counts Igor Stravinsky and Hector Berlioz as two of her favorite composers.

“I invite friends to concerts. They often say they wouldn’t have come if not for me, but they found it really interesting and liked it,” she continued.

Though it’s not uncommon for first-time audience members to expect a school recital experience at a SYSO performance, they are consistently blown away by SYSO’s quality.

“The top group (SYSO), on any given day, can play as well as any given orchestra. They may not have the chops to do that every day, but they pour their enthusiasm, artistry, and adrenaline into the performance and it elevates their game,” said Petersen. “People are always astounded.”

Petersen partially credits SYSO’s success to the fact that the young musicians are often encountering the classical composition for the first time with new energy and a fresh approach.

Even Mae Lin, from the vantage point of the Seattle Symphony, remains amazed by the talent.

“I understand the pressure of performing in a symphony or playing a solo and I’m amazed by how they handle it so well. They also always look so incredibly happy, proud, and inspired,” said Lin.

Jeffery Lee, an 18-year-old senior at Bellevue’s Overlake High School, looks forward to practicing. If he could, he’d “rehearse with SYSO every day.” In 2011, Lee won SYSO’s Concerto Competition, which awarded him the honor of playing on stage during a Seattle Symphony Orchestra performance.

“It was one of the most exciting experiences of my whole life,” he said.

Lin received the same distinction exactly 10 years earlier in 2001. After playing with the Seattle Symphony as a student, she considers it a dream come true that her career came full circle when she joined as a full symphony member in 2008. She now plays alongside many of the musicians she admired during her childhood. It is this sense of enduring community that is a hallmark of SYSO’s continued success.

“I teach myself and some of my students write me cute notes about how they now want to attend Juilliard or play in a symphony,” said Lin. “Those connections are amazing. It really says something about what this organization creates.”

SYSO has deep Northwest roots. It now boasts second-generation students, siblings playing alongside one another, and love connections that have resulted in marriage. With 70 years of success already established, SYSO looks forward to what the future holds. Current students appreciate being part of the legacy, but also never lose sight of the moment.

“The best feeling is once we finish performing and the audience starts clapping,” Jeon said. “If you feel that you played well, it makes all those Saturday morning rehearsals worth it.” (end)

SYSO’s 70th Anniversary Concert & Auction will be held at Benaroya Hall on Sunday, April 28 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.  Tickets are $20 to $50. For complete information and to purchase tickets, call 206-362-2300 or visit www.syso.org.

Deanna Duff can be contacted at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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