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Meet a True Musical Preservationist : Richard Pontzious tired of seeing young musicians leave Asia. So he gave them a reason to stay.

August 27, 1995|Walter Wager | Walter Wager is a free-lance writer based in New York

HONG KONG — Wouldn't it be wonderful if people could defy ethnic and religious hatreds and rise above the divisions of politics and culture? If gender, wealth and social connections didn't matter; only talent and civility? If optimism and friendship ruled, and if everyone pulled together creatively for the common good?

Such a utopia does exist, in the form of the Asian Youth Orchestra, and you can watch it in action Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl.

The 6-year-old Asian Youth Orchestra is completing its first U.S. tour after winning critical and popular acclaim in Europe and the Far East. It is the brainchild of Richard Pontzious, an American resident of Hong Kong, who each year brings together about 100 young musicians from throughout Asia for an intense month and a half of coaching, rehearsing and performing.

The players are all between 15 and 25, and each has had to audition in his home country. This year's group of 94 represents the cream of about 2,000 hopefuls who tried out from Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Korea and Vietnam.

The man who conceived the Asian Youth Orchestra is tall, trim, sandy-haired and driven. Pontzious, who started out as a music teacher in Asia, is the orchestra's executive director.

"I still see myself as a teacher," he said, sitting in an office at Hong Kong's modern Academy of Performing Arts, the site of AYO's "rehearsal camp" this year. In reality, though, he is the orchestra's fund-raiser, audition organizer, tour impresario and father figure.

Pontzious, 51, was born in Utica, N.Y., but moved west with his family to the San Francisco Bay Area where he studied music at San Jose State University. His main instrument was violin, but he planned all along to teach rather than perform.

The first job he landed took him to Asia, conducting and teaching the Taipei American School Chorus in Taiwan. That is where his love affair with the Far East began. He also taught in Tokyo, where he got his first taste of creating an orchestra from the ground up when the Yamaha Music Co. asked him to form a youth symphonic band.

Even after he returned to the Bay Area in the early '80s, where he took over as music critic for the San Francisco Examiner, Pontzious maintained his ties to Asia, ultimately working on and off with students at China's Shanghai Conservatory. Pontzious watched as many talented students went West to broaden their musical educations.

It seemed to him that the talent drain ought to be stopped "I concluded that going abroad wasn't the real answer for young Asian musicians," he said. "I began to think about what [could be done] for their growth right here in the region."

It took three years of organiz ing to get the Asian Youth Orchestra off the ground. The first hurdle was securing high-level support. Pontzious succeeded in enlisting the sponsorship of Yehudi Menuhin--whom he collared when he interviewed him for the Examiner in 1987. Menuhin, hearing of Pontzious' connections with Asia, mentioned his admiration for the Shanghai Quartet. That was all the opening Pontzious needed. Menuhin became the orchestra's musical director, and its first conductor.

Next Pontzious set out to raise funds. The Asian Youth Orchestra is a nonprofit charitable trust and its funding is entirely private; Pontzious raises every penny himself. The budget this year, which supports auditions, world-class coaching in Hong Kong and travel, housing and food for the entire seven-week program, will top $2 million. Contributions have come in from the likes of Hong Kong communications baron Richard Li (who is underwriting the 1995 rehearsal camp) and Chinese movie idol Jackie Chan (who is funding a full scholarship for one musician).

Perhaps Pontzious' most crucial task each year is overseeing the AYO talent search. In each of the participating countries, he has organized audition committees made up of senior faculty from top music schools. Tryouts are held in February and March, and although musicians must audition every year, it isn't unusual for some to return for a second or third season with AYO.

No part of creating the orchestra has been simple. "I get my way," Pontzious once said, "because . . . when somebody says no, I go next door. I don't give up."

Much of that persistence has been directed at overcoming political hurdles. "Korea was afraid their kids would become infected by politics," he once told a reporter. "I had to fight half a dozen ministries in Singapore and Taiwan to get musicians out; only this year [1994] did China agree to supply musicians to play alongside Taiwanese musicians."

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