Note Worthy:  Los Gatos Weekly Times



Note Worthy

It's a talented group of teens that make up the Youth Symphony's Philharmonic Orchestra


By Judy Peterson

The Los Gatos United Methodist Church comes alive on Monday nights as several hundred middle and high school students arrive with musical instruments, both big and small, for the San Jose Youth Symphony's weekly rehearsal.

Beginning promptly at 6:30 p.m. passersby can hear the music made famous by the likes of Schubert and Rachmaninoff being performed by some of Silicon Valley's most talented young artists.

The symphony has eight performing groups: two full orchestras, two wind ensembles, two string ensembles and a flute and percussion ensemble. Of these, the premier performing group is the Philharmonic Orchestra.

Members of the philharmonic are generally in high school, so the musicians juggle their studies with long practice hours and typical teen activities.

"It is a lot of work," said Mabel Hsu, who attends Saratoga High School. "Plus it's my junior year so I'm working hard at school, preparing for SATs and the exit exam. Once I'm home from school I don't dawdle. You have to control your time."

Mabel has been playing the violin for eight years and has been with the philharmonic for three. She also plays the piano. "You can't really play the piano with an orchestra," she said. "And I like playing with a big group."

Mabel says the violin is a hobby, and she's not sure if she'll continue playing when she goes to college. However, she is considering teaching music on the side.

Clarinetist Joe Morris is already teaching first-year students. He is the winner of the symphony's Young Artist Competition and will be a featured performer at the philharmonic's upcoming Spring Classic concert.

Joe, a senior at Bellarmine College Preparatory who lives in Los Gatos, is so enamored of the clarinet that he plans to make it his life's work. "When I joined the philharmonic as a freshman, I was pretty sure I was going to go into a general college major," he said. Now he's applying solely to music conservatories. Even his e-mail proudly proclaims "clarinetist4life."

One thing that influenced Joe's decision was the orchestra's 2005 performing tour in Spain. "It was the first time I'd played with a professional group," he said. The philharmonic often performs side-by-side concerts with other orchestras, and during the 2005 Spain tour it played at one of Europe's most prestigious events--the Granada Music Festival.

The Spain tour was not unusual: The orchestra goes on the road every two years. Last year took it to Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria. The concerts not only sold out, but the performers received high praise. "You brought down the house," wrote April Foley, the U.S. ambassador to Hungary. "A performance of that caliber requires exceptional talent as well as endless hours of preparation."

The symphony's conductor and music director, Yair Samet, says 2009 might see the philharmonic in South America, China or perhaps France and Spain. "It's a hard decision," he said. "We'll let the members decide."

Samet has conducted professional orchestras from Germany to China to St. Petersburg and Finland. But he says, "It's really exciting to work with young people. The nice thing about it is they start totally from scratch and in a few weeks they know all the pieces."

The philharmonic practices from September through early June, with each practice lasting three hours. But Los Gatos High School sophomore Grace Yang says the demands go far beyond the scheduled practices. "I practice one to two hours per day," she said. "But if I have a competition coming up, I practice three to five hours a day."

Grace has a number of competitions under her belt, including those sponsored by the Chinese Music Teachers' Association and the Korean Times. "It gets intense during competitions. It's more fun without that pressure," she said.

Grace's musical interest began with the piano--her mother is a piano teacher. But one day she was listening to Yo-Yo Ma, the famous cellist, and was inspired to take up that instrument. Besides music, Grace's other primary interest is film. "I see this as a hobby because I plan to focus more on cinematography," she said.

Although Grace went on to say, "I don't have a lot of time for other activities," she does belong to the Korean Club and The Office club. The latter is based around the television show and every Tuesday club members watch one of the episodes.

Violinist Grady Kestler also belongs to The Office club. He is a junior at Los Gatos High School and was born and raised in town. Grady, who has been with the philharmonic for two years, says the 2007 European Tour was really fun. "It was totally different than what I expected. I don't travel that much so it felt good to experience new stuff."

His favorite stop on the tour was Prague. "It has a lot of artistic stuff," he said. "That's what got me interested in architecture." Grady plans to study either design or architecture in college, with a possible minor in music. "Playing the violin gives you versatility for other instruments. My brother plays the guitar, so a couple of months ago I picked one up and started messing around with it."

Grady says he just likes to hang out a lot. "I find the time. Homework doesn't seem to take too long."

Mabel says she, too, finds the time to hang around, mostly with kids who play in the orchestra but who live in cities other than Saratoga. "I've definitely created friendships I wouldn't have somewhere else," she said. She also has a broad spectrum of interests. At school she has been involved with the election committee and the speech and debate team. She served on the Montalvo Arts Committee and currently belongs to the Junior Auxiliary. As an auxiliary member, Mabel volunteers at Good Samaritan Hospital on Saturdays where she visits patients to see if they need any help.

That sense of volunteerism is evident in almost all of the symphony's activities. As a nonprofit organization, it depends on volunteers such as Nancy Naroff, who is the group's secretary. She says, "The kids are all really well-rounded, they're loyal and very dedicated. They're always willing to lend a hand and are a real pleasure to know. When I see them perform in a concert I have to pinch myself because I have to remember they're just kids. They sound just as good or even better than a professional orchestra."

The San Jose Youth Symphony was founded in 1952 with a mission of providing the valley's youth with "exceptional orchestral music education and performance experiences." Since then it has greatly broadened its reach, performing an annual three-concert subscription series and a free holiday concert. The symphony also sponsors Music Matters, which is an after-school outreach program. It was developed in 2004 because budget woes forced many local schools to cut their music programs.

The Philharmonic Orchestra's next concert is March 15 at 2:30 p.m. at the California Theater in downtown San Jose at 345 S. First St. To purchase concert tickets, or to find out how to audition for the symphony, visit or call 408.885.9220.