‘For the love of making music’: The Yale Symphony Orchestra celebrates 50 years
The Yale Symphony Orchestra (YSO) is celebrating two milestones this fall — the 50th anniversary of its founding and the 10th anniversary of Toshiyuki Shimada’s tenure as music director of the ensemble.
Regarded as one of the premiere college orchestras in the United States, the YSO was founded in 1965 as a residential college orchestra by a small group of Yale students. The ensemble, composed mainly of undergraduates, is an extracurricular group that has performed in Woolsey Hall for each of the last 50 years, which is “an amazing thing,” notes Shimada.
“This orchestra consists of very talented, young musicians who, rather than pursuing an education at a conservatory, have decided to seek a liberal arts education, and the best place to do that is at Yale,” says Shimada.
Because the YSO is an extracurricular group, rather than one linked to a for-credit class, students are not required to attend concerts and rehearsals. “These students are in the orchestra for the love of making music together,” says Shimada. “You can tell this by sensing the energy of each rehearsal and concert. They are more enthusiastic than any other professional orchestra that I have conducted.”
Leading a university orchestra rather than a professional one has given Shimada the opportunity to gain a better understand of a piece of music, because there is a longer time span between concerts, he says. “It’s a great benefit to be able to sink into a piece, and expand upon and better understand a work. We have much more freedom to create and experience the music.”
In the past 50 years, the YSO has hosted numerous world-renowned musicians — which makes it unlike any other college orchestra, according to Shimada. “When you are performing with a world-famous artist you want to do even better,” he notes. “These students put 120% or 130% instead of 100% into a performance.”
“Yale has this wonderful, nurturing atmosphere for the arts,” says Shimada, adding that this is one reason prospective students find Yale particularly appealing. “There are hundreds of arts organizations here. And there are performers and audiences to support all of them,” he notes. “We have an incredible wealth of gifted students and a supportive administration that creates these opportunities for its students.”
He adds: “The YSO has an excellent reputation, and this is a recruiting tool that benefits Yale as a whole as well. It’s a great way to play excellent music all the while studying for a liberal arts education. Yale always stands out amongst the Ivy League schools.”
Among the high points of the music director’s decade at Yale, he notes, are the four tours that the YSO has taken to locations in the Pacific Northwest, Italy, Turkey, and Brazil. “Each tour was a wonderful opportunity to spend more time with the YSO students,” says Shimada. “The last concert is always the finest one because we know each other so well. It’s like performing with the closest friends you can think of, and the music is so inspiring and inspires the audiences as well when they hear that kind of sound.”
Shimada says that another “great experience” during his time spent leading the YSO is the annual Halloween Show, which is put together entirely by students and in which the conductor does not have a role “except to give them my best wishes.” Tickets sell out in minutes for the annual event, which features a student produced silent film accompanied by a live score performed by the orchestra in the dark. The performance, he says, has been “a highlight of my year every year for the past 10 years. The students are so talented and imaginative.”
The showcase event for the 50th anniversary of the YSO will be a concert on April 21, 2016 in Carnegie Hall. “Our 50th anniversary needed a significant milestone occasion and Carnegie Hall is that place,” says Shimada. At that event, a number of musicians who have performed in the past with YSO will be invited to join the current ensemble onstage.
The theme for the 50th anniversary of the YSO is looking back to the past, connecting with the present, and looking forward to the future, says Shimada. “I hope we can expand our horizons in performance venues in other countries where the YSO has not played in the past, and show musicians and audiences what is possible at Yale.”