“Financial Challenges” Shut Down American Youth Symphony

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Carlos Izcaray and the American Youth Symphony | Credit: Michael Bulbenko

It was a stressful week for classical music in California.

Adding to the previously announced departure of Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel from the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2026, LA Opera revealed on Wednesday that James Conlon, its music director for two decades, will step down from his position after the 2025–2026 season. Then, on Thursday, Esa-Pekka Salonen dropped the bombshell that he had declined to extend his contract as music director of the San Francisco Symphony beyond 2024–2025.

And yet, it’s likely that the most consequential bad news of the week came from a group without the name recognition of the departing conductors — but of enormous importance for the future of music in this country.

The American Youth Symphony, which shut down on Friday, is — or rather was — one of the few large national organizations involved in the vital transition between studying and starting a career in music.

“After 59 years of offering exceptional fellowships and training to talented young adults, the American Youth Symphony (AYS) will permanently cease operation effective March 15, 2024, as a result of financial challenges and the inability to sustain operations,” said the organization’s announcement.

It’s characteristic of AYS that it opened the 2023–2024 season — which would become its last — with a work as rare as the 1935 Piano Concerto in D Minor by Vítězslava Kaprálová, a Czech woman composer who was 20 at the time she wrote the piece.

“Despite our best efforts, the challenges of maintaining our operations have become insurmountable,” said AYS Board Chairman Kevin Dretzka.

“COVID-19 amplified AYS’s unsustainable financial infrastructure. We have exhausted every effort and hope the larger orchestral industry and classical music philanthropic community take note to shore up these important preprofessional orchestras like AYS which directly benefit them.”

“It is with a heavy heart that we announce the closure of our beloved organization,” said Executive Director Isabel Thiroux. “We extend our deepest gratitude to our talented artists, dedicated staff, supportive patrons, and generous donors who have been instrumental in our journey. While this chapter may be closing, we are proud of the legacy we leave behind and the impact we have made in the lives of many.”

Carlos Izcaray | Credit: Jenna Peffley

Carlos Izcaray, who served as AYS’s music director for the past nine years, said, “It is extremely regrettable that an organization of the caliber and history of AYS has to shut down. I am proud of the work that the staff did under incredible pressure and will remain in awe of the progress our fellows showed throughout the last years.

“Many of them joined some of the best orchestras in the country, and several others became top studio musicians, composers, administrators, and entrepreneurs in the field. Unfortunately, we were not able to secure the funding to pivot to a more sustainable model.

“Many memories from our programs and projects will remain, such as monumental symphonies by Mahler and Brahms, tone poems by [Richard] Strauss and [Franz] Schreker, American canonic works, the introduction to repertoire [by composers] such as Esa-Pekka Salonen, Brian Raphael Nabors, and Jennifer Higdon, collaborations with rock star Steve Vai, [Benjamin] Britten’s War Requiem with the National Children’s [Chorus], our signature Hollywood Project, and many other creative endeavors with our fellows as soloists and involved co-creators. I remain inspired by all of them and look forward to learning how their careers evolve.”

Established in 1964 by conductor Mehli Mehta — the late father of Zubin and Zarin Mehta — AYS, said the organization’s press release, “has played a crucial role in nurturing the next generation of professional musicians and fostering a vibrant artistic community. AYS presented ambitious seasons of thoughtful programming of exceptionally high quality, covering a breadth of symphonic music, including beloved classics, film scores, chamber works, and contemporary pieces, while championing many of today’s composers.”

The orchestra was open to students in high school through doctoral programs, as well as to those who had completed their education.

One recent milestone was AYS’s 2019 world premiere of composer Fil Eisler’s new violin concerto with soloist Sarah Chang — the inaugural event of the AYS Korngold Commission Project, designed to unite great film composers with top classical soloists to create and premiere new works.

In 2020, AYS gave the world premiere of composer Kris Bowers’s violin concerto For a Younger Self at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The concerto was commissioned by AYS and performed by violinist Charles Yang. AYS recorded For a Younger Self, which is part of an album due for release on Orchid Classics in July 2024.

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