Light & Verity

Making music for a half century

The Yale Symphony Orchestra: much more than Halloween.

Courtesy Yale Symphony Orchestra

Courtesy Yale Symphony Orchestra

The Yale Symphony Orchestra kicked off its 50th anniversary season with an October 3 concert in Woolsey Hall. View full image

The undergraduate Yale Symphony Orchestra is marking its 50th anniversary this year with a whole season of special events: alumni shows, premieres of works by composers who once played with the orchestra, and a grand return to Carnegie Hall in April. “The YSO began as these young rebels, for presenting contemporary music when nobody else on campus was,” says Brian Robinson, a contemporary composer himself who has been the orchestra’s managing director for the past 12 years. Now, after a half century, the YSO is part of Yale’s musical establishment. But nobody’s worried about midlife crisis.

Many students become familiar with the YSO through its ever-popular Halloween spectaculars in Woolsey Hall, which feature silent films, often with major celebrity cameos. Since the YSO starting giving season-ticket holders a jump on Halloween show tickets three years ago, attendance at the other concerts has “skyrocketed,” Robinson says. “It’s good to see so many students who otherwise wouldn’t be at an orchestra concert.”

And those students are watching musicians who otherwise might not be in an orchestra. The YSO is intended, as Robinson puts it, “to provide a resource for students here who may not want to be music majors but are highly accomplished musicians.” The orchestra has released one LP and five CDs.

Robinson credits John Mauceri ’67, ’70MPhil, who led the YSO from 1968 to 1974, with “giving the orchestra character and standing. We were premiering things by Debussy, Bernstein, and Britten.”

When asked how the orchestra began, Mauceri gives a redefinition: “It wasn’t really an orchestra. It was a chamber group that started calling itself a symphony, and gave a couple of performances to small audiences.” It was Richmond Browne ’58MusM, the YSO’s first permanent conductor, who suggested that Mauceri succeed him as music director. Then, Mauceri says, “I made this bold decision: why don’t we go for Woolsey Hall?” This led to the new, audacious concepts in concert programming and the eye-grabbing modern-art posters for which the YSO quickly became known.

Mauceri, who has by now appeared with many of the world’s great orchestras and won Grammy and Tony awards, is returning to the YSO podium this season for an Alumni Weekend concert on February 13 at Woolsey Hall. He will also be a guest conductor when the YSO plays New York’s Carnegie Hall on April 21.

Mauceri was invited by Toshiyuki Shimada, the current—and longest-serving—YSO director. Shimada has conducted the orchestra for ten years, but nevertheless, “it is still so adventuresome. The students are not afraid of performing anything. I hear them practice and I feel that this is a wonderment.”

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