By Flora Tsapovsky
On a sunny Sunday, Hayes Valley is filled with strolling parents and teenagers going about a day off from school. But by the musicians’ entrance to the San Francisco Symphony, quite a few teens are heading home after a hard day’s work. They’ve just finished a three-hour rehearsal at the Symphony’s Youth Orchestra and are waiting, instruments in tow, for Mom and Dad to pick them up.
The orchestra, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this season, counts 114 members ranging in age from 12 to 21. “It felt like the biggest accomplishment of my life,” says Elizabeth Vo-Phamhi, 17, of gaining acceptance to the prestigious institution on her second try.
She plays the harp, as does her sister Jenny, 20, who attends Stanford University and often practices in her dorm. “I once visited an outreach concert as a child in kindergarten, and fell in love with the idea of an orchestra,” Elizabeth recalls. “I learned the piano first, because it’s required, and then adopted the harp in 4th grade.” Andrew Boosalis, 18, who lives in Tiburon, plays percussion. He arrived at the orchestra by a nontraditional route: He had first dedicated his life mostly to ballet. “I was in the production of Cinderella, performing at Lincoln Center,” he says. “Hearing Prokofiev’s music was life-changing, and although I love to dance, I realized my love of music was far beyond.”
Boosalis and the Vo-Phamhi sisters were selected from more than 300 applicants in the Bay Area. They rehearse and perform at the Davies Symphony Hall under the direction of conductor Christian Reif. There are performances this holiday season on November 19 and December 10, when Richard Dreyfuss narrates a holiday presentation of Peter and the Wolf.
With quite a few concerts in the course of a year, and occasional world tours, the Youth Orchestra—one of the few in the country to release its own recordings—is constantly aiming to expand its reach. The anniversary milestone “is a perfect opportunity to reflect on successes and to think about the future,” says Rebecca Blum, Director of Orchestra, Education and Strategic Initiatives. “One thing that comes up a lot is a bigger network with our alumni, which would connect [alums] with youth currently in the orchestra. We’re also commissioning new work, with a contemporary ensemble, and looking to provide an in-depth look at contemporary music.” Overall, she adds, the primary goal is to give these young musicians a “pre-professional experience. But it’s also great training to develop professional human beings. The skills they develop in this rigorous environment are extremely valuable for them.”
According to Jenny, “As soon as the program for the year arrives, a lot of us will rush to YouTube or iTunes and start looking up scores, to prepare, so when you come to rehearsal, you’re 100 percent technically ready to start making the music together.” Elizabeth chimes in, “I feel like it’s important to know all the parts, to understand how it all comes together.” Even if the average high school and college student is more interested in sports than orchestra, the sisters’ high-caliber placement in one of America’s brightest musical ensembles impresses friends who become Symphony regulars. Jenny tries to invite as many peers as possible during the season, “and once they get here, they see that it’s an awesome way to spend an afternoon and often come time and time again.” Boosalis adds: “Davies Symphony Hall is truly a space where you can just enjoy life.”