Through It All, Young People’s Symphony Prevails and Thrives

ByQuyen Anne

Feb 1, 2024

On one hand, there is the glory of being one of the country’s oldest and best-known youth orchestras.

On the other, when you spring forth from Berkeley in 1936, there are some drawbacks, such as getting through World War II, “relocation” of your Japanese American members, ongoing discrimination against Black kids, economic ups and downs of the 1980s, 1990s … and, of course, COVID-19.

The Young People’s Symphony Orchestra (YPSO) has had its share of all that, and it’s still here, about to perform a rich, challenging concert on Feb. 26 at First Church of Berkeley, including Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.

David Ramadanoff, YPSO’s music director since 1988, sees an upside to the pandemic downside: “For the first time, we oversold the hall, as people are dying to get back to concerts.”

Board member Satoko Stroud says even after the worst of the pandemic in 2020, “we [still] had to cancel several rehearsals because of Omicron and resumed them last week with sectionals to limit musicians in the same room.” Last week, YPSO had a full orchestra rehearsal for the first time in 2022.

YPSO violins
At the November concert at First of Church Berkeley last year | Credit: Fred Liao

Ramadanoff speaks of the challenges: “We needed to build a full orchestra when a number of members were hesitant to return to live rehearsing and performing during Covid.

“Our immunologist, Board President Dr. Yvonne Brouard, made sure everyone was safe and knew they were safe in our rehearsals and our first concert. Because our fall concert was an amazing performance for an orchestra finally returning to live performance, we had the largest audience we’ve ever hosted.”

Of the upcoming winter concert, the music director says:

“We’re performing three works of wonderful diversity: a memorial work by an African American composer — Adolphus Hailstork for Martin Luther King; a personal memorial work by one of our most prominent American composers who happens to be a woman — Jennifer Higdon for her brother Andrew Blue Higdon; and a great Russian composer writing a work that transformed his musical language as he expressed his feelings for his people and his time — Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.”

YPSO flutes
YPSO woodwind and brass players used special masks in rehearsals and performances | Credit: Mika Watanabe

YPSO is run by volunteers — parents and community members — who, among other services, provide dinners for the young musicians. A prominent volunteer is Rupa Krishnan, whose son, Sahil Najeeb, is the orchestra’s principal cellist. Last week, she served homecooked Indian food for 100. Krishnan says:

“I am delighted to see the orchestra slowly return to a semblance of normalcy with regular rehearsals in preparation for our second live concert of the season. Before the pandemic, rehearsals each Monday were packed with an intensive schedule with a short dinner break for our young musicians. Parents of the orchestra took turns to provide dinner each week, and the kids looked forward to a break and treat in the middle of a long evening of hard work.

Sahil Najeeb and Rupa Krishnan
Sahil Najeeb is YPSO’s principal cellist; his mother, Rupa Krishnan, is a volunteer and parent coordinator who serves her homecooked Indian dinner for the musicians | Credit: Satoko Stroud

“All of this changed abruptly, and in-person rehearsals stopped altogether for several months or were carried out in small groups for a shorter duration. The energy and vibe of the full orchestra seemed to have taken a beating, even as several ideas and remote rehearsals were attempted to keep the orchestra going. With full rehearsals resuming this year, we returned to hosting dinner for the nearly 100 kids once again. This meant adapting to the new requirements for Covid protocol and safety, while also working with the reduced services now available at the church facilities.

“Extra precaution with serving foods, masking at all times, minimizing close interactions with students by planning and plating meals ahead of time, in addition to routine health screening for everyone, has become the new norm.”

Dealing with the pandemic is violinist Maya Cox, 16: “It’s been incredibly challenging. I think one of the most important parts of playing music with others is not necessarily just getting the pieces to sound good but having a strong connection with those you are playing with.

“While our rehearsals through Zoom and Jamulus last year were extremely helpful for learning the music, I wished I was able to get to know the other members of the orchestra face to face and not through a screen. I’m so grateful YPSO was able to go back to in-person rehearsals this year because I have been able to form such meaningful bonds with the other musicians and I find myself always looking forward to Monday evenings.

“I am beyond excited for our tour to Europe this summer because not only is this an incredible opportunity to travel and perform in famous places, but I get to do it with some of my closest friends.”

The planned resumption of overseas touring is an ambitious undertaking. From June 21–29, YPSO will visit and perform in Leipzig, Prague, and Vienna, where the concert at the Musikverein will be part of the American Celebration of Music in Austria.

To be part of the adventure, aspiring new members should audition beginning in April. There will be openings for two French horn positions, and one each in oboe, clarinet, trumpet, percussion, first and second violin, and cello.

Rehearsals are every Monday evening at First Congregational Church of Oakland. Participating in the tour is required, and the cost is estimated at $4,300, with partial scholarships offered where necessary; adults are welcome as chaperones or as accompanying family members.

Ellen Kim, 18, co-principal violinist, says about getting through the Covid period: “I always knew that music unites no matter how far we are away from each other or what situation is given to us. This is something I got to feel deeply last year with the remote rehearsals and virtual projects. The virtual projects were still engaging and fun but going to in-person orchestra really reminded me of what orchestra is like.

“It’s more than making music together. It’s also about the energy each and every musician gives off and the connection that I get to make with the people around me. Of course making music is really fun as well, but it made me realize how much our music also improves as we get to know each other. I also think it’s really admirable that we get an opportunity to make music together because everyone that’s present during rehearsals, musicians and staff alike, have to make compromises in order to make that happen.”

Violin co-principal Ellen Kim: “I love the unique harmonies in Shostakovich’s music, creating a tension that holds in the air” | Credit: Mika Watanabe

Of the upcoming concert, Kim says: “Shostakovich has been my favorite composer since I heard his Cello Concerto a couple years ago. Now that I have the opportunity to play his Fifth Symphony, I see how different the two pieces are but how much I like them both.

“The first movement projects a tragic energy while the second movement has a dance-like nature which is completely different from the chaos I hear in the fourth movement. I love the unique harmonies in Shostakovich’s music, creating a tension that holds in the air.”

YPSO in masks
Consistently protected during the pandemic, YPSO musicians have special masks on when playing; these are different by instruments, and everyone is fully masked when not playing

Orchestra Manager Nadia Liu says during remote practices, “more time was spent on ‘Can you hear me now?’ rather than hearing each other play and getting to know one another. So when we were able to get the kids together in-person for this season — oh my gosh — that first note at downbeat … the students were so in sync with each other, it was my most memorable moment for all of 2021.”

Mika Watanabe is the parent of 14-year-old triplets who are YPSO members: Aya Watanabe (bassoon), Koto Watanabe (flute), and Naoto Watanabe (percussion).

“As I watched their first rehearsal, I understood what my teens and all these young YPSO musicians are craving: the pure excitement of creating music, together, live. The pandemic had isolated them, but now they are with 90 other players to make music. Yes, they must wear instrument masks, and pay attention to their health conditions, yet despite their challenge, the quality of the sound they collectively make is magical. Playing in orchestra is a powerful experience that you cannot have in any other way.”

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