Loud musical sounds emanated from one of the large rehearsal spaces in Schoenberg Hall at UCLA, which usually serves as a classroom for university orchestras. More than 110 young people--36 violinists, 14 cellos, a bank of 10 double bassists at the back of the room and a full complement of woodwinds and brass--jammed the room.
But these were not UCLA students. They were orchestral musicians, ages 15 to 25, members of American Youth Symphony who were rehearsing on a recent Saturday morning.
Right after 10 o'clock, and following a few weekly announcements given by a volunteer coordinator, the orchestra's longtime music director and conductor, Mehli Mehta, stepped to the podium.
Then the young people really made a mighty noise.
At 78, Mehta has been a familiar figure in the Los Angeles music community since shortly after his son, Zubin, became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1962. A lifetime educator, he retains the courtly manners and formal style of his years in Bombay, where he founded his own symphonic orchestra.
Mehta espouses a philosophy of music, and orchestral playing, different from that of more pragmatic teachers, apparently combining a high idealism with the worldly practicality of a journeyman musician. Some of those ideals are clearly inherited from his long tenure as concertmaster of the Halle Orchestra, under his mentor, Sir John Barbirolli. What music creates in the people who make it, Mehta says, is deeper and longer lasting than the skills they hone to perform together in a single concert.
"Too many young people see music as a matter of fact--they take it for granted," he says. "They had better see it as a matter of art. It must be nourished, cultivated, promoted and cherished--and nurtured."
The American Youth Symphony--and about a dozen other youth orchestras in Southern California--offer training for young people in a time of dwindling orchestras. Some say the future is "bleak," with too many orchestral players competing for too few positions. But to Mehta, making music isn't just a hobby or potential job.
"Young musicians must be encouraged, not only to look forward to a job, to a vocation, to a career, but to being part of the art of music," he said. "It is a high calling, and it demands the best--sometimes even more than the best--they have to give."
On this particular Saturday morning, American Youth Symphony was rehearsing a suite from Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe," a work of striking instrumental difficulties, for a concert more than six weeks away. During the hour Mehta devoted to it, he cajoled, implored, coaxed and lectured the young people of his orchestra.
He worked on technical and musical details, described in words and demonstrated on a borrowed violin the difference between a "French" sound and a "German" one, and gave practical musical advice not always related to the score at hand.
Mehta's American Youth Symphony is arguably the most accomplished of the Southern California training orchestras; it is certainly the most visible. It exists, in terms of quality, and musical standards, between the college, conservatory and university orchestras, which supply many of its players, and the professional orchestras to which its members aspire. On a local level, it is the counterpart of the nationally recruited Institute Orchestra of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Seven times a year, AYS performs in Royce Hall at UCLA. Each February, it gives a benefit concert in the Pavilion of the Music Center. Every Dec. 24, it appears on the Christmas Eve program put on by the County of Los Angeles, also in the Pavilion (its next performance is tonight at 8, in Royce Hall, UCLA.)
The work of AYS and all its sister organizations, Mehta says, is to prepare young instrumentalists to play in professional orchestras. That is accomplished through rehearsals and concerts. Mehta says there are 67 AYS alumni working in North and South American and European orchestras. In every case, he claims, their training has been exhaustive. "We cover the entire orchestral repertory, music from the Baroque period up until today.
"Where else can young people get these opportunities?" Mehta asks in his hyper-intensive way. "The chance to play Mahler's Ninth, Beethoven's Ninth, Bruckner's Fifth, all the tone poems of Richard Strauss, and every one of the piano and violin concertos in the standard repertoire?"
Of equal value to the future professionals and the future music lovers in the ensemble, Mehta says, is the chance to hear all these works.
"It's always the first time for these young people," he says. "Can you imagine how it must be, to play 'Daphnis,' or the 'Eroica,' or 'Till Eulenspiegel,' for the first time?" He raises his arms and shakes them in mock excitement.