'It's an opportunity to play with the best. It's the top students, a very select group.'
Teen-agers in the Orange County Youth Symphony Orchestra have the opportunity to play challenging music with other students who tend to favor Mozart over Michael Jackson and Dvorak over trendy dance tracks.
While still in high school, these aspiring musicians play in a full-sized orchestra under the direction of a professional conductor--John Koshak, professor of music and director of orchestras at Chapman College.
The Youth Symphony offers a challenge not found at the high school orchestra level, according to Debby Chuang, a 17-year-old Foothill High School senior who plays clarinet in the symphony.
"It's a much higher caliber of music," she said. "It's what some adult orchestras play."
Trombonist Jason Niedle, 17, a senior who plays in the band at Cypress High as well as in the Youth Symphony, said: "I love the feeling of playing in an orchestra because there's no orchestra program at my school. I had always wanted to play in an orchestra, and Orange County Youth Symphony Orchestra is very prestigious."
Said Koshak: "They do major repertoire, things they cannot do in their own high school orchestras. It's an opportunity to play with the best. It's the top students, a very select group."
Violinist Karen Mallannao, 17, a senior at Capistrano Valley High, said she joined the orchestra because "I was interested in playing with a large group of other people my age who were as interested in music as I was."
The Youth Orchestra has given eight concerts this month at the Orange County Performing Arts Center for a total of 24,000 fifth-grade students. "We get to teach people with our Young Persons Concerts," Chuang said. "It makes you really feel good that you can have other people enjoy what you're doing."
On Feb. 26, the symphony will perform for the public in the Chapman College auditorium in Orange. The concert, which will begin at 4 p.m., will feature the Overture to Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," the suite from Stravinsky's "Firebird" and Dvorak's Symphony No. 8. Hans Brightbill, an 18-year-old cellist from Dana Hills High School, will perform as a soloist, playing Lalo's Cello Concerto.
The orchestra will perform its last public concert of the season at Chapman College on April 30 at 4 p.m. Violinist Mallannao will be the soloist, playing Saint-Saens' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso."
Tickets for both performances cost $2 for students and seniors and $4 general admission and are available at the box office on the days of the concerts or in advance from a member of the orchestra.
About 40 local schools are represented in the orchestra, which is sponsored by Las Campanas, the Orange County Department of Education and the Chapman College music department. All but six of the 82 musicians are in high school; four are in eighth grade and two are in college.
Auditions are held each September. Candidates play one prepared piece, usually one the orchestra will be performing in an upcoming concert. They can then be asked to sight-read music or play scales. The final orchestra selections are made by a committee of professional musicians and teachers.
The auditions are the hardest part of the experience, said violinist Katie Smith, 17, a 3-year veteran of the Youth Symphony and a Fountain Valley High senior.
"It sounds really corny because the music is challenging and it's challenging to watch the conductor, but it's challenging like that with every orchestra," she said. "When you have an audition, you know who you're up against."
Violinist Debi Tanksley, 15, a Tustin High sophomore who has been in the orchestra for 3 years, said, "The hardest part is learning the music, then getting it together with everybody else."
"I really respect John Koshak," said violist Rob Feldman, 17, a Dana Hills senior. "He treats us very professionally. He respects us, so we respect him."
Horn player Bobby Gordon, 15, a Katella sophomore, added: "He's not always serious. He can laugh with the group."
Koshak, who has been conductor of the orchestra since it began in 1970, is quick to say that the enthusiasm of the students is the most fun part of his job.
"We have students who have come out of this orchestra and have gone on to do extremely well and have been accepted to do graduate work at major schools like Juilliard," he said. "One violinist, former (Youth Symphony) musician Jennifer Woodward from Fountain Valley High School, is now with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, as is horn player Richard Todd from Fullerton."
Even if the students never go further in music than the Youth Symphony, the young musicians have received much recognition simply by playing with the orchestra.
"We've been invited to do a concert at Carnegie Hall," Koshak said. "We've been invited to do that for about 5 years. We haven't done it before because we had other plans, and I wanted to wait until we could combine it with (a tour of) Europe. We will go to New York and Europe (in 1990 or 1991) if the cost is not prohibitive."
Koshak's goals go beyond simply making music.
"I want them to learn about music, not just play notes, but to know who Beethoven was, why his music sounds the way it does," he said.
"Music can teach a kind of order and consistency in your life. If a person is going to be a medical doctor, a teacher, a housewife or whatever, participation in a really great music group can help that."