A Symphonic Coming of Age

Berkeley Youth Orchestra offers an enriching “harmonic progression” into musical maturity.


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For many students, BYO is their first experience playing in an orchestra.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

While many of us may wake up on Saturday mornings to a relaxing breakfast and a cup of coffee or tea, the scene is altogether different in the Laney College Theatre as nearly 100 youths take the stage for their weekly rehearsal. Instead of smartphones and video game screens, these young people are staring into sheet music, studying the dynamic markings and flow of notes scripted for strings, woodwinds, horns, and more. A sense of purpose and ambition hangs in the air.

“Every rehearsal is about the journey,” said Jay Lehmann, artistic director and conductor for the Berkeley Youth Orchestra. Lehmann’s passion for BYO shines through in the gentle warmth he exudes when he talks about the young people he directs.

“I’m big about helping them become a better person,” he said. “There’s a formative sense of teamwork involved here. When you’re an orchestra and you’re all pulling together to carry a piece of music, that’s something special.”

Indeed, witnessing the poise and dedication of the young middle school and high school students who make up the orchestra is something to behold. For many of them, BYO is one of the first experiences of playing in a full orchestra that they encounter. Yet they bring a sophistication to the music that seems well beyond their years.

“Having an orchestra experience with strings, woodwinds, and horns combined opens up possibilities for all kinds of repertoire,” explained Karen Paik, a parent of a BYO member and a coach of one of the orchestra’s string ensembles. She is also a BYO alumna.

“I was in eighth grade when I played as a violinist for BYO,” Paik said. “Nowadays, I teach music and play in different orchestras around the Bay Area. My oldest daughter, Elizabeth, played in BYO for three years and then went on to play in another youth orchestra. Now my younger daughter, Abigail, is playing violin with BYO.”

The passing of the musical torch is not only evident in Paik’s family, it’s also part of Lehmann’s history as well. Lehmann has served as chairman of the music department at Laney for 22 years and had two children play in BYO as adolescents. Over time, he stepped in as coach for the woodwinds and brass section of the orchestra. And when the previous BYO conductor took a new position elsewhere, Lehmann took the helm.

“Parent involvement is a big part of the supportive environment we foster here,” said Lehmann.

Musical evolution can also be seen in how BYO’s orchestral program is structured to allow for highly skilled instruction, and modeling from several of the Bay Area’s well-respected symphony players. BYO’s Artist-in-Residence (AiR) program features four professional musicians—Ilana Matfis, David Ryther, John Bennett, and Heghine Boloyan—who serve as section coaches for the orchestra while also performing together as the AiR quartet.

“With an orchestra of this size, you need a team of people to support this kind of opportunity,” said Lehmann. “The AiR quartet and our team of coaches really make that support possible.”

The emphasis on chamber music is a defining aspect of BYO’s offerings to students. Beginning in January, the entire orchestra is divided up into a series of 20 ensembles, ranging from string quartets to woodwind quintets and brass ensembles. Students work on musical arrangements specifically tailored for their small group that will be featured when they take the stage during BYO’s Chamber Concert in March.

“Chamber music means you have to step forward and be strong,” Lehmann said. “It’s one thing when you’re playing music in a large group. But real musical strength is achieved through the independent playing aspect that students get in chamber music.”

The BYO is currently in its 48th season and shows no signs of slowing down. And under Lehmann’s direction, the orchestra’s mission remains focused on nurturing a passion for music in the next generation of musicians.

“I’m all about the kids,” he said. “Having them love what they’re doing, enriching their experience with music, and helping them get better week by week.”

That, you might say, is where the real crescendo happens.

 

For more information about how you can support the Berkeley Youth Orchestra and for a schedule of upcoming concerts, visit BYOWeb.membershiptoolkit.com

 

This article appeared in the February issue of our sister publication, The Monthly. 

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