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Youth orchestra remains strong after 40 years

At noon on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the 90 members of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra are on stage at Powell Hall getting ready to rehearse German composer Paul Hindemith's "Symphonic Metamorphosis."

Typical Thanksgiving break plans for trombonist David Lindsay, a junior at Pattonville High School who's in his first year with the orchestra, don't include an hour and a half rehearsal.

"Knowing me I would probably think about doing homework, but end up not doing homework and just like sitting on the couch and watching TV," he says laughing. "So it's actually pretty good that I'm here and not wasting my time at home.

A special opportunity awaits this group of musicians after rehearsal today. Leonard Slatkin, the current music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the conductor laureate of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, will lead the professional orchestra in three Thanksgiving weekend performances. But he carved out some time to work with the youth ensemble he founded on a piece featured in the December 1970 debut - Aaron Copeland's "Billy the Kid."

"I'm a product of the youth orchestra format," says Slatkin. "You're playing abstract music, trying to create something for the audience, trying to bring these composers back to life, and the earlier than anyone can begin to grasp that, that fuels you for almost anything in the future."

Slatkin was no stranger to the symphonic music scene in St. Louis - he grew up here, and his father was a violinist for the Symphony - which is why he was shocked that the SLSO did not have a youth ensemble under its auspices. She he appointed a board, auditioned 600 young musicians - "one of the hardest things I ever had to do," he says - and formed a youth orchestra. The musicians were simply required to have a love of music and participate in their school music ensembles as well.

"The last thing we wanted to do was to take away from an already slightly eroding school music program. We wanted to supplement it, and be part of it," Slatkin says.

The few exceptions to that rule are in place for musicians like violinist Erica Westenberg, who's made the 200-mile round-trip from Rolla to St. Louis for the last six years. The drive is worth it, Erica says. Rolla High School, where she's a senior, doesn't have an orchestra, and she wants to play ensemble music throughout her life.

"I've been playing in the community orchestra back in Rolla for a while, and I don't know, the technical level here is just so impressive, and our music is just so exciting," Erica says.

The youth orchestra has nurtured more than a thousand young musicians in its 40 years. Many choose careers in other fields. But some - like SLSO acting associate principal bassoon Felicia Foland - have returned to St. Louis to take the stage at Powell Hall as professionals.

Foland played for Leonard Slatkin in the youth orchestra from 1973 to 1976. In that time, the orchestra became the first American ensemble to host the Youth in Music Festival in Austria. Fourteen years later, Slatkin hired Foland to join the professional orchestra.

"That is a satisfaction that is hard to describe," she says. "I'm the kind of girl who remembers who brung her to the prom, so I always have a little tender place in my heart for Leonard. He was perhaps a little more patient and not quite so much in a hurry as he was with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, but he still had the same artistic demands for the young people."

Foland works with the youth orchestra's woodwinds section, and is involved with raising money for a scholarship, named for the orchestra's first executive director Edith Hoagland, that helps send musicians to summer music camps. But her yearly highlight is the side-by-side rehearsal, where musicians from both orchestras work on the youth program together.

"This year, they were playing Samuel Barber's Symphony #1, which is so difficult that I had to practice to be at their rehearsal, and they were playing it. I think the future of classical music is quite bright. They're a delight to work with," she says.

Trombonist David Lindsay and violinist Erica Westenberg enjoy that experience as well.

"It was just really cool, sitting next to the professional player of your instrument, and he's giving you advice," David says. Erica nods and adds, "just hearing the power that comes out of it."

Since she graduates in 2011, this is Erica's last year with the youth orchestra. But she says having to juggle rehearsals for the community orchestra, the youth orchestra, and her schoolwork helped teach her how to focus and be efficient. David, who plans to audition again next year, says the experience has given him more confidence in all his other activities.

Leonard Slatkin says he didn't think the youth orchestra would last more than its first two years. But he says the board - and the city of St. Louis - made it a priority.

"It says that people care about the future for your young people," he says. "I remember that when there was a matter of contract negotiations, the then-executive director says the one thing we're not touching is the youth orchestra."

His pride and joy is now is in the hands of Ward Stare. Stare conducted the youth orchestra's New York City debut last year, and has big dreams for future concerts.

"This is very impractical I know, but I've always thought it would be fun to do scenes from an opera with the youth orchestra," Stare says. "And then I'm thinking maybe a big Strauss tone poem might be fun, or maybe something with a chorus."

But for now, he'll keep working with his musicians as they prepare for their March concert - and the start of another 40 years.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.