“I have heard Beethoven’s Symphony 9 more than 30 times now, but never before have I been moved as much as this performance by the Asian Youth Orchestra,” wrote a member of the audience at the final performance of Asian Youth Orchestra’s 25th anniversary tour at the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall on August 29, 2015.
At the concert, talented young musicians from twelve different nations and territories across Asia delivered an inspired performance to a packed house. After they played the final notes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, many of the audience members were on their feet, shouting out “Bravo.” For the encore, the conductor led the orchestra in the Nimrod movement from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a majestic piece played with deep emotion. As the young musicians performed, tears welled up in their eyes and many of them began to sniffle. Even the audience had trouble holding back tears. For the students, this moment was the culmination of a life-changing experience that would be forever etched in their memories.
The Asian Youth Orchestra was founded in 1987 by legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin and artistic director and conductor Richard Pontzious. “We launched with great spirit,” recalls Pontzious. “I spoke to Yehudi Menuhin and he was immediately taken by the notion of this project to create an Asian youth orchestra.” Before founding the orchestra, Pontzious, who was born in New York, had worked as a music teacher in Shanghai, Taipei, and Tokyo. He was impressed with the talent of young musicians in Asia and wanted to find a way to shine the international spotlight on them.
Participants in the program are carefully selected through rigorous auditions held throughout Asia. In the summer, the musicians, aged 17 to 27, assemble in Hong Kong for three weeks of intensive training followed by an international tour. Past soloists performing with the orchestra have included such renowned musicians as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Akiko Suwanai.
“This is a very high tension project that we’re doing,” says Pontzious. “They have to play well. We are saying to people that three weeks from now we are going to have an orchestra that is going to play this repertoire beautifully. That’s a high-wire act working without a net. There’s pressure on the faculty to get these students into shape. Then for the students, it’s nine hours a day of rehearsal and with high expectations.”
Unlike many other regional youth orchestras, the Asian Youth Orchestra doesn’t set quotas for the number of students from each country or region when selecting participants. The selections are based solely on musical skill, reflecting the uncompromising standards of Maestro Pontzious. Over the years, the breakdown of nationalities represented in the orchestra has shifted to reflect changes in Asia. In the beginning, says Pontzious, “Japan had a major role. The numbers were big from Japan in the early years of the orchestra.” In recent years, the ratio has balanced out and there are fewer Japanese musicians and more participants from other countries in the region. In this year’s Asian Youth Orchestra, 13 of the 103 members were from Japan.
Changes in the region have been reflected in other ways as well. “Particularly 20 or 25 years ago, it was a different world,” says Pontzious. “The notion that a Taiwanese violinist would be sitting next to a mainland violinist and playing in the Great Hall of the People and then playing in Nanjing in a building that the Kuomintang had used, and then going the next day to Taipei. They remember this. It opened their eyes.”
During the tour, the students sometimes stay with host families. One Chinese student told Pontzious she felt uncomfortable staying at the home of a Japanese family. “How do you think I feel?” she asked him. But after two days, she was completely at ease, holding the Japanese family’s baby in her arms and lamenting the fact that she had to say goodbye so soon.
The music seems to break down all barriers – national, cultural, even linguistic. One Japanese participant writes, “Even though we had different cultural backgrounds, it was not so hard to communicate with each other because we have the ‘musical language.’ After playing music together, we were friends as if we had known each other since childhood.”
Pontzious says that despite the language barrier, the students from different countries generally manage to communicate with each other in some form of English. “They’re not counting prepositions or periods or commas,” he says. “They’re just somehow communicating. And it works. And they share this common bond of playing music, working very hard.”
How does Pontzious manage to generate such deep feelings of camaraderie among young musicians with vastly different backgrounds in just six weeks? Perhaps one factor is that he’s an American, so he doesn’t have as much cultural baggage as somebody from the region might.
The program also gives the participants the opportunity to experience performing in a full-size orchestra and explore their aspirations as musicians. “A career in music can mean many things,” says Pontzious. “Too often young people get focused in one direction and they don’t look and see what other opportunities are out there. The vast majority of participants will go into some sort of professional music career, and we find that because they’ve had this contact and because they’re not afraid to cross borders, it just gives them courage.”
Although music is the driving force that motivates these young people, Pontzious says he feels the greatest impact of his work is forging friendships. When asked about their experiences in the Asian Youth Orchestra, the alumni all seem to give the same response: “It changed my life.”