The Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras is one of the most robust youth-symphony programs in the U.S. — and its alumni range from the founders of the Kronos Quartet to Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist David Horsey.

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A violinist practices as the SYSO prepares for the opening of its season on Nov. 15 with Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, along with Glinka’s “Russlan und Ludmilla” overture and Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14.  (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)
A violinist practices as the SYSO prepares for the opening of its season on Nov. 15 with Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, along with Glinka’s “Russlan und Ludmilla” overture and Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)

Every first-timer at a Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras concert tends to say the same thing: “I can’t believe they’re kids!”

SYSO has been astonishing audiences, and giving unbeatable musical training to young players, since its founding in 1942. On the concert stage, the organization’s programming pulls no punches: Sunday’s lineup of Glinka’s tricky “Russlan and Ludmilla” overture, the soulful/speedy Barber Violin Concerto and Brahms’ mighty Fourth Symphony requires a professional-level orchestra.

The Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra plays the first movement of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98, at Benaroya Hall during a dress rehearsal on November 10, 2015. (Lauren Frohne and Corinne Chin / The Seattle Times)

And SYSO sounds like one. Despite cuts in school budgets, and the perpetual endangerment of classical-music institutions, the Youth Symphony is a widely recognized bastion of excellence. SYSO alumni have gone on to orchestras as far afield as Hong Kong and Germany, as well as major American symphonies and ensembles.

Among the better-known SYSO alums: David Harrington, founding first violinist of the Kronos Quartet, who got hooked on string quartets when he called up three of his Youth Symphony friends to play Beethoven’s Opus 127. Inspired by George Crumb’s “Black Angels” score, Harrington formed the Kronos Quartet, which played its first official concert in 1973 — with nine people in attendance. The original quartet included California violinist Jim Shallenberger, as well as SYSO alumni Tim Killian (viola) and Walter Gray (cello).

Flutists chime in during Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14 during a Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra dress rehearsal at Benaroya Hall.  (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)
Flutists chime in during Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14 during a Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra dress rehearsal at Benaroya Hall. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)

Other prominent Youth Symphony alumni include: Terry Ewell, former principal bassoon of the Hong Kong Philharmonic; former Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra violinist Connie Knudsen-Gantsweg; harpist and recording artist Heidi Lehwalder; the late Ed McMichael (Seattle’s “Tuba Man” street musician); and many others.

Cellist and longtime radio announcer/producer Dave Beck still recalls the thrill of getting into SYSO in 1977, after auditioning his way up through its training orchestras (of which there now are three, plus a chamber-ensemble program).

“It was a huge achievement,” remembers Beck, who has worked in local radio since 1985 — first at KUOW FM, now at Classical KING FM. “The orchestra’s standards are so high that being there was a great honor.”

Among Beck’s happy memories were his years at the summer Marrowstone Music Camp (then at Fort Flagler on the Olympic Peninsula) and his stint in the youth symphony’s principal cello chair (1981-82), when he played a crucial solo in Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

“I was so nervous,” he confesses, “because there was a huge slide up to a high note. I looked up to the podium and saw Mr. Sokol with the most kind, loving smile that told me, ‘You’re gonna nail this.’ ”

The late Vilem Sokol, SYSO’s music director and conductor from 1960 to 1988, was one of Seattle’s most beloved cultural figures. Beck, who still plays cello in the Auburn Symphony, jokingly calls Sokol “revered and feared” because of his commitment to excellence.

SYSO French horn player Dave Horsey, later a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, lampooned Sokol during rehearsal in cartoons that drew a chorus of snickers, leading the conductor to demand: “OK, pass it down here!”

Members of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra practice Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14, during a dress rehearsal at Benaroya Hall. The orchestra opens its season on Sunday, Nov. 15 with Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, along with Glinka’s Russlan und Ludmilla Overture and Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14.  (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)
Members of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra practice Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14, during a dress rehearsal at Benaroya Hall. The orchestra opens its season on Sunday, Nov. 15 with Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, along with Glinka’s Russlan und Ludmilla Overture and Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14. (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times)

Besides the laughs and the thrills, SYSO has given its players what Beck calls “a sophisticated understanding of music and the arts. The players are not just future professional musicians: They are future board members, avid concertgoers, teachers, doctors, all kinds of people who have learned discipline, teamwork and a sense of community. There’s a passion and a dedication that you carry forward into whatever you do. When you are immersed in something beautiful and meaningful, you have such a sense of achievement — it’s a peak experience.”

SYSO peak experiences began in 1942, when violinist/conductor Francis Aranyi founded what would become the largest youth-symphony organization in the United States. When Sokol took over as conductor in 1960, he lifted the orchestra to international fame with two performances of Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 10. Before SYSO, only the London Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony had performed this towering work.

Stephen Rogers Radcliffe, now in his 10th season as SYSO’s seventh music director, jokes that he is “still living in the shadow” of Sokol, and points with pride to the expansion of SYSO’s mission to include community service as well as performance: “No other youth orchestra does what we do in public schools, where we supplement their programs with before- and after-school lessons.”

When SYSO went into Denny International Middle School in West Seattle a few years back, there were 18 kids studying instruments. Now there are more than 100.

To promote the less-popular instruments, SYSO organized an “Endangered Instruments” orchestra that has grown to 60 bassoons, 25 oboes and 40 French horns. (Radcliffe says this program is emulated as far away as Australia.) SYSO also partners with Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet, playing as PNB’s “pit orchestra” for upcoming school performances of “Le Corsaire.”

Elise Kim, a SYSO flutist who has worked her way up through the three training orchestras to a first-chair position, says it’s “a clear reward” to be able to play in Benaroya Hall.

“After seven years of being in SYSO, this experience has taught me more than just how to play in an orchestra and collaborate with people; it has also taught me the value of being prompt to rehearsal,” Kim explains.

“I am confident that I can apply the lessons I have learned to what I choose to pursue later.”

A cartoon by a teenage David Horsey, who played French horn with the SYSO for six years. He later won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1999 and 2003. (David Horsey)
A cartoon by a teenage David Horsey, who played French horn with the SYSO for six years. He later won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1999 and 2003. (David Horsey)