The Very Beginning-the Francis Aranyi Years 1942 - 1959
On February 27, 1943, a group of young people gathered at what is now the Harvard Exit movie theatre on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Led by the Hungarian violinist and conductor Francis Aranyi, these young people started something that would grow into the largest youth symphony organization in the United States.
The Youth Symphony Orchestra of the Pacific Northwest, as SYSO was known in its early days, performed most often in the historic Moore Theatre. The orchestra also toured schools, parks, and community theatres. Building a large and enthusiastic audience, the Youth Symphony Orchestra quickly established itself as one of Seattle’s leading cultural attractions.
Maestro Francis Aranyi created the Little Symphony, now known as the Debut Symphony Orchestra, as a training program to develop the skills of younger musicians. Aranyi also founded the summer program that would become Marrowstone in 1943. Students were performing at Marrowstone the afternoon that World War II came to an end.
In the summer of 1959, after 17 years of inspired leadership, Francis Aranyi’s increasing musical obligations compelled him to submit his resignation as conductor of the Seattle Youth Symphony.
“Never, ever give your second best – always do your best.” - Francis Aranyi
Vilem Sokol 1960 - 1988
Aranyi's successor was Vilem Sokol, then principal violist of the Seattle Symphony and professor at the University of Washington School of Music. Maestro Sokol took over as Music Director of Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras in 1960, and for the next 28 years, he presided over an ever-improving ensemble, shaping it into the leading youth orchestra in the country. His dedication to the art of string playing and conducting, his personal charm, gift for storytelling, fascination with music history and dedication to new and rarely performed works brought the Seattle Youth Symphony to international prominence in the 1960’s.
Upon Vilem Sokol’s arrival in 1960, growing interest in the Seattle Youth Symphony necessitated the creation of a second training orchestra – the Junior Symphony Orchestra – to accommodate intermediate level players. In the 1990s, two additional orchestras we added – the Classical Orchestra and the Symphonette – completing SYSO’s learning pathway, engaging students as young as seven and molding them into artists capable of performing a fully professional repertoire.
Under Sokol’s leadership, SYSO received national awards for its performances of contemporary music. Sokol programmed new works by Seattle-based composers Alan Hovhaness, African-American composer William Grant Still and pieces by William Bergsma, John Verrall and George Fredrick McKay.
Vilem Sokol also played a major role in introducing the Suzuki method of violin instruction in the United States. During a 1965 Seattle visit, Dr. Suzuki had dinner with the Sokol family at their Capitol Hill home. As Maestro Sokol remembers: "the plates had barely been cleared when Dr. Suzuki announced it was time for music lessons." While Sokol took photographs, Dr. Suzuki demonstrated his innovative teaching approach working with Sokol’s daughters.
One of the most astonishing accomplishments of the Sokol era was the fourth performance of Derryck Cooke’s performing edition of Gustav Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. After hearing the symphony at a colleague’s home, Sokol convinced the Mahler estate to allow the Seattle Youth Symphony to perform the work in 1972. Prior to SYSO, only the London Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony had performed Mahler’s Tenth.
Ruben Gurevich 1988 - 1993
Sokol’s successor had a lot to live up to, and after his retirement over 170 applicants vied for the Music Director position. In the spring of 1988 Ruben Gurevich, a Uruguayan born musician based in the Los Angeles area, was appointed the third Music Director of Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras. A violinist by training, Ruben Guervich was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, immigrating to the United States to study at Yale University, the Cleveland Institute of Music and Northwestern University. Ruben Gurevich’s tenure lasted for five fruitful years.
Jonathan Shames 1994 – 2002
In 1994 Jonathan Shames was named the SYSO’s fourth Music Director. Shames balanced the demands of SYSO Music Director with his career as a concert pianist. During his tenure Seattle Youth Symphony performances featured local celebrities, including Seattle Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus and comedian, television host and educator Bill Nye the Science Guy. Continuing the tradition of presenting contemporary music, the orchestra performed several new works, including the West Coast premiere of a cello concerto composed by Seattle Youth Symphony alumnus Daniel Asia and performed by internationally celebrated cellist Carter Brey in May 1999. Shames’ performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” are particularly remembered by Seattle audiences.
Huw Edwards 2002 – 2005
In 2002, Welsh-born conductor Huw Edwards became the SYSO’s fifth Music Director. Formerly Music Director of the Portland Youth Philharmonic and guest conductor of professional orchestras around the world, Edwards was also a five-year faculty member at Marrowstone. Huw Edwards’ critically acclaimed SYSO debut at Benaroya Hall in November of 2002 coincided with the start of the Youth Symphony’s 60th anniversary year. Maestro Edwards enlarged the repertoire of the Seattle Youth Symphony, adding works by leading 20th Century British composers, and premiering works by American composers like John Mackey.
Christian Knapp 2005 – 2006
After Maestro Edwards resigned the post, SYSO engaged in an intense search for a new Music Director. In the interim year, Christian Knapp, at the time Associate Conductor of Seattle Symphony, agreed to take over the Seattle Youth Symphony. His professionalism and deep commitment to musical education and excellence led to incredible performances. Among his triumphs were stellar concerts featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky Cantata.
Stephen Rogers Radcliffe 2006 - current
Stephen Rogers Radcliffe was selected as SYSO’s sixth Music Director from a field of over 130 applicants. Maestro Radcliffe brings vast experience as a conductor and educator. Previous positions have included Director of Orchestral and Choral Activities at University of Massachusetts Amherst, Assistant Conductor of the Boston Lyric Opera and Principal Guest Conductor of the Hungarian Virtuosi.
Maestro Radcliffe founded and led the New York Chamber Ensemble at Lincoln Center for 10 years, performing and recording new music, forgotten gems and repertoire standards. Of his recording of Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, Classics Today said: “Stephen Rogers Radcliffe's approach is so fresh, his rubato so natural and sensitive, and his instinct for the music's Czech essence so true that you come away not wanting to hear anybody else's.”
Thank you to Mohai