YPSO Strings
YPSO violinists, masked and separated, rehearse for upcoming performances with coach Yuri Kye | Courtesy of YPSO

The Bay Area’s Young People’s Symphony Orchestra, second oldest among the country’s 15,000 youth orchestras, is celebrating its 84th season by defying COVID-19. (The country’s oldest is the 97-year-old Portland Youth Philharmonic in Oregon, which also continues with virtual performances.)

As all orchestras — of all ages, in all locations — struggle with pandemic restrictions, YPSO is holding in-person string rehearsals; has moved to a real-time audio rehearsal method called Jamulus for winds and brass; plans to have in-person outdoor rehearsals (with bell covers and masks); and is making plans to go next year on the twice-postponed summer tour to Vienna, Leipzig, and Prague.

YPSO performs Tchaikovsky in Davies Hall

YPSO Board President Yvonne Brouard — who is also a medical doctor — says of the tour: “We had postponed the tour from 2020 to 2021, and of course with some of our students being as young as 12, they will not have a vaccine before this June, so it is now postponed to 2022. We will be playing in the Musikverein in Vienna and will visit the same three cities. What a crazy year plus it has been!”

The advanced-level youth orchestra for students ages 11 to 21 is accepting video auditions for its 85th anniversary season in 2021–2022. Plans include the usual three subscription concerts in Berkeley, and the annual pops concert. For now, Brouard points to the first virtual concert premiere in the middle of April, and the concerto competition showcase and silent auction, April 22 – May 2.

Ramadanoff with YPSO
David Ramadanoff and the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra in the good old maskless days | Credit: Vladimir Gurevich​​​​​​

YPSO Music Director David Ramadanoff, who has been leading the orchestra for a third of a century, says he is proud of what the players, coaches, and board are accomplishing with the program, and “enormously grateful to the parents for supporting it. We’ve retained a strong orchestra membership and been able give them wonderful repertoire and training.”

He doesn’t underestimate challenges, such as “in matching ensemble, articulation, expression, and intonation which can normally be solved quickly when they are sitting together. Also, there are some new members whom I still have not met in person. This has made immediacy of communication difficult for all of us, but because they are outstanding players, they are giving their very best under the circumstances and producing impressive results.”

YPSO cellos
Paul Rhodes coaches the cello section | Courtesy of YPSO

Strings, percussion, and harp have been coached and rehearsed in a mixture of remote and in-person, but because of pandemic policies, they have only been able to meet in groups with a maximum of 15 at a time. “They have not yet met as full sections, so we have formed two chamber orchestras which gave the coaches and me much more immediacy of communication. As a result, they are sounding wonderful.” 

Brouard says of dealing with COVID-19 protocols:

Yvonne Brouard
YPSO Board President Yvonne Brouard

We have been really fortunate to have our rehearsal venue, First Congregational Church of Oakland, be willing to open for us to rehearse in person. We have needed complicated schedules of sectional rehearsals with no more than 14 students and two adults present at any time, and 30 minutes between one cohort and the next in any particular rehearsal space, to comply with the county Covid requirements and to keep our students, coaches, and families safe. All participants have had symptom screening and temperature checks at the door, and of course are all masked at all times.

Maestro Ramadanoff conducting in a mask with students all spaced 6 feet apart and a zoom camera on him for the remote students has been an interesting sight! It has been wonderful to hear the small ensembles rehearse - even that has been more challenging than usual as they are so distanced that it is much harder for them to hear the other instruments, so timing has been a real effort for all concerned. And, of course, I am the only other person there to hear them!

It has also been very chilly in the church, as we cannot safely run the old-fashioned heating system, as it does not comply with ventilation standards, so Maestro and the students have been in warm clothes as we have had to have windows or doors open in each space.

It has definitely been a challenge, but absolutely worthwhile as the students benefit so much more from in-person music making than from virtual methods, and they are all so fed up with virtual learning and many are suffering mentally from lack of socialization. I’ve been so grateful that we have been able to provide a sort of normalcy for some of them in this pandemic time.”

Experiences of the young musicians vary, and some encounter additional difficulties. For example, Henry Stroud, 12, violin, says: “I have a Covid high-risk person at home so I cannot participate in in-person string rehearsal. It is my most favorite thing to play with other musicians. But since I can’t do that, it is really disappointing. Doing Jamulus in real time was surprisingly more fun than I expected. I can’t wait to be back and play with my fellow YPSO musicians.”

Another violinist, Luke Spivey, 13, speaks of the delight of reunion:

Starting in the fall when we went back in person, it was a breath of fresh air from the Zoom we had been doing in the early months of the pandemic. It’s been a really unique experience. These simple in-person rehearsals have been one of my few chances to be face to face for anything. We could actually hear each other and match our sounds. And we got to work with our conductor, Maestro David Ramadanoff again.

“Even though we can’t perform to live audiences, which I do miss, we did learn some basics of audio recording. In fact, for this year’s concerto competition, I submitted an iPhone recording of the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 and I was selected as one of the winners. I was so excited! Now, I get to make a full recording of it very soon.”

Aya Rokeach, 14, oboe player, is both grateful for advances and regretting all that’s lost:

It has been incredibly difficult having music’s presence in my life be so reduced to align with what’s possible in a pandemic. I have more limited options as an oboist, because I can’t play while wearing a mask. While some young string musicians have had the opportunity to continue making music in small groups, wearing masks and physically distanced, the winds must remain relying on the internet to make music.

Words cannot express how much I miss rehearsing and performing live in YPSO, and how much I long to return to ‘normal,’ but YPSO has done a remarkable job making the best of the situation. With YPSO maintaining the feeling of community, and utilizing new innovations that support making music in a pandemic, I’ve felt supported in such a difficult time, and have been able to learn and grow musically even with so much inhibiting that.

“Jamulus has played a big part in this. It’s been a bit of a learning curve getting used to how to use the software, as well as adapting to playing with the entire winds section merely in my headphones, but it’s been well worth it. In the full winds rehearsals, we’re able to keep in time by Maestro playing a metronome, giving us verbal cues, and counting. It’s a way for us to once again learn the music in context, which is so incredibly important.”

Jennifer Son
Concertmaster Jennifer Son is a junior at Dougherty Valley High School in San Ramon

Bassoon player Ariel Spagnolo, 15, likes the technology that’s available:

“It’s been great to get to rehearse over Jamulus. After not playing together for so long after lockdown last spring, I’m really glad to be able to have a way of making music with other people. It’s not a substitute for playing in person, especially with periodic connection and technical difficulties, but it’s the closest thing to in person that we wind instruments have had.”

The concertmaster, Jennifer Son, has been mostly remote on Zoom:

“Joining an orchestra in a time of pandemic surely sounded odd, but so far, it has been a very interesting and fun experience for me. I find it fascinating how we can still put together great music through the use technology and create a virtual performance. I think this also reflects on our passion for music. Even though not everyone is able to meet in person and rehearse together, we are finding various ways to make it possible.”