Who We Are

CYS History

Mission Statement

The mission of the California Youth Symphony is to serve the community while providing talented young musicians with the finest musical experience and the opportunity for personal growth through the rehearsal and performance of symphonic music.


CYS’ 60th Anniversary
Read the inspiring article about the California Youth Symphony and some of the exciting concert events and the New Zealand tour that marked this CYS milestone season. Visit Classical Voice, "the go-to place for classical music in the Bay Area".

A Brief History of the California Youth Symphony

Early in 1952 Aaron Sten, founder of the Peninsula Symphony Orchestra, had the inspiration to create a symphony orchestra composed entirely of school-age musicians. After consulting with parents, music teachers and young musicians, the inspiration became a reality. On March 3, 1952 the California Youth Symphony, the first independent youth symphony in the state of California, was founded, with Aaron Sten as conductor.

Twenty-two players attended the first rehearsal, but the orchestra grew quickly and by the fall of 1952 the orchestra presented its first full concerts for the public. In 1954 the Young Artist Competition was established whereby outstanding young soloists from the Bay Area are chosen to perform with the orchestra during the concert season.

During the early years the orchestra made great advances under Maestro Sten's guidance, touring to Utah and Oregon in addition to presenting concerts in the Bay Area. 1959 marked the beginning of the annual summer music camp, with its intensive sessions fostering both individual and ensemble playing.

In 1962 CYS performed at the World's Fair in Seattle and later presented benefit concerts with Mary Costa and with the San Francisco Symphony. In 1963 the orchestra embarked on an historic 28-day, twelve concert tour of Japan under the auspices of the Asahi Shimbun Press. This was the first overseas tour by an American youth orchestra. Two documentaries, "Rehearsal for a Tour" and "The Young Ambassadors," were broadcast on national television.

During 1964 and 1965 the California Youth Symphony appeared twice at the San Francisco Opera House, both concerts broadcast on KCBS Radio. In 1966 the young musicians headed to Mexico for a sixteen-day concert tour, which included a performance for over 10,000 people in Guadalajara.
In 1969 CYS crossed the Pacific again, this time to Australia. The sixteen-concert tour brought the musicians to Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and Brisbane. Preparations for the tour included benefit concerts with Jack Benny and Duke Ellington.

In 1971 the orchestra accepted an invitation to perform at the International Festival of Youth Orchestras in Lausanne, Switzerland and also toured Czechoslovakia.

1977 marked the 25th anniversary of the California Youth Symphony. By then alumni numbered in the hundreds, many of whom had gone on to careers as professional musicians. The Palo Alto Times, on the occasion of the Silver Anniversary Concert, noted that "Sten had molded his resource of teen-age talent into an exemplary ensemble, which plays musically and precisely."

A turning point for the California Youth Symphony occurred at the end of the 1978-79 season, when conductor Aaron Sten retired after 27 years. Earlier in the season, the orchestra had become the first symphony ever to perform at the Paul Masson Vineyards' concerts and had also inaugurated the 1978 concert series at Stern Grove in San Francisco.

After a nationwide search, Dr. Lauren Jakey was selected as the California Youth Symphony's second conductor and Music Director. During his first season, the orchestra accepted an invitation to perform at the Easter Service at the Hollywood Bowl, establishing the orchestra's all-time single concert attendance record of over 15,000. The Orchestra returned to the Hollywood Bowl in 1981, 1982 and 1983. While in Southern California CYS has also performed at Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm and Magic Mountain.

1981-82 marked the California Youth Symphony's 30th anniversary season. That season a reviewer from the Peninsula Times-Tribune wrote of "astonishing quality," "a stirring experience," and noted "confidence was the watchword."
In June of 1982 CYS hosted a gala thirtieth anniversary reunion. Many of the nearly 1,000 alumni returned, from as far away as Honduras, to share memories and to make music together once again. The high point of the reunion was a special "Alumni All-Star" concert. Conductor Lauren Jakey shared the podium with CYS Founder and Conductor Emeritus Aaron Sten in a touching musical reunion.

In June of 1984, the Orchestra returned to Mexico on a highly successful benefit tour for UNICEF and local Mexican charities. CYS presented six concerts throughout the country, including an appearance on Mexican National Television and a gala benefit performance before Mexico's First Lady and other national dignitaries.

In September of 1985, in order to deal with the crisis caused by severe cutbacks in school music programs, CYS expanded its programs for younger musicians so that they now included preparatory groups and a junior orchestra. In June of 1986, after a year of intense musical preparation and fund raising, the California Youth Symphony embarked on a successful two-week tour of Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

In 1988, the California Youth Symphony Orchestra accepted an invitation to perform at the 17th International Youth and Music Festival in Vienna, Austria. The Orchestra captured third place -- the highest ranking American group.

In 1990 CYS traveled to England, Wales and France for its eighth international tour, appearing at such renowned venues as the Barbican Centre in London, the Margam Festival in Wales and the Festival de Sully in France.

The 1990-91 season was a time of transition for the California Youth Symphony, marked by the tragic death from cancer of Lauren Jakey. His leadership had taken CYS to new heights, prompting the critics to refer to CYS' music as "startlingly good" and displaying "astonishing quality". Fortunately, a brilliant young conductor, Leo Eylar, was available to assume the leadership of the California Youth Symphony. A professor and conductor at Sacramento State University, he was a frequent guest conductor of the San Jose Symphony and had studied conducting at the prestigious Hochschule für Musik in Vienna. The reviewer from the Peninsula Times-Tribune called Eylar’s first concert a "triumph" and said "[CYS'] music stretches to an inspirational level, encouraging other young people." The San Mateo Times reported "Eleven hundred patrons braved the rain as newly appointed composer/conductor Leo Eylar led the [CYS] Orchestra through a challenging and profoundly performed program at the Flint Center in Cupertino...the sweep and scope of the playing, the ebullience and buoyancy of line, were thrilling."

The following year, 1992, was most memorable. In June the orchestra toured Australia, including a special concert in the Sydney Opera House sponsored by Bank of America. Later the organization celebrated its 40th anniversary with an alumni reunion, held at Stanford University, which brought together hundreds of alumni from the 50s through the 90s. The guest of honor was CYS founder Aaron Sten.

For the 1993-94 season CYS continued its development under Leo Eylar’s baton. The San Mateo Times described a CYS performance as "rousing...dynamic...flawless." A critic from the Peninsula Times-Tribune wrote that CYS was "superior to all the adult community orchestras that I’ve heard." The response from local audiences reflected the growing quality as well. Attendance at CYS concerts has risen steadily since that time.

Unfortunately, the 1993-94 season was also marked by loss. On February 27, 1994 CYS founder Aaron Sten died in his sleep at his home in Sacramento at the age of 77.

Continuing the tradition of international travel that Aaron Sten had begun in 1963, CYS mounted a tour to Central Europe in the summer of 1994, visiting Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary. In addition to performances in Salzburg, Prague and Budapest, the orchestra participated in the International Youth and Music Festival Competition in Vienna, where it captured first place, topping the third place finish that CYS had achieved in 1988. Upon completion of the tour CYS recorded its first of several compact discs.

The 1995-96 season brought continued growth, and excitement, for CYS. The number of CYS programs grew to seven with additional programs for wind, brass and percussion. The percussion ensemble grew more active, taking on additional independent performances throughout the Bay Area.

1995 also saw the beginning of an international collaboration which continues to the present. This project had its roots in the tragic earthquake that struck Kobe, Japan in early 1995. After viewing the devastation on TV, CYS musicians decided to raise funds to help young musicians in Kobe get back on their feet and, after inquiries, located the New Philharmonic Junior Orchestra there. Amazingly, it was discovered that the founder of the orchestra, Mrs. Setsu Hayashi, had spent some time in California while her husband studied at Stanford and one of their children had even played in a CYS preparatory group. A new friendship was born. This led to the invitation for CYS to tour Japan as part of its Asian tour in the summer of 1996.

Thus, after 33 years, CYS returned to Japan, and toured Taiwan as well. The spectacularly successful tour drew praise from President Clinton, Governor Wilson and Ambassador Mondale. It included collaborations with several youth groups in Japan, including the New Philharmonic Junior Orchestra and the Okayama Junior Orchestra, and led to a commitment to continue working together. In March 1997, 14 musicians from the NPJO and the OJO, led by Mrs. Hayashi and eminent Japanese conductor, Maestro Hiroyuki Takeda, came to California and participated as guest artists in the CYS concert series. Continuing this partnership, CYS Music Director Leo Eylar and 14 CYS musicians traveled to Kobe and Okayama in August, 1997 to perform and to participate in the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Okayama Castle. In March 1998 younger musicians from the Japanese youth orchestras came to California to collaborate with the CYS Associate Orchestra [intermediate level].

In the summer of 1998 the CYS Orchestra mounted its 12th international tour. The orchestra visited Spain, giving a series of concerts in notable venues, including a gala evening performance in famous El Escorial palace outside of Madrid. The orchestra also recorded its fourth CD while in Spain, both in the studio in Seville and in live performances.

At home, CYS has continued to expand its commitment to music education. Both the wind and string preparatory programs have been expanded to include beginning and intermediate levels. In the fall of 1997 CYS initiated its ninth program, a brass ensemble under the direction of award winning French hornist Peter Nowlen.

In the summer of 2000 the CYS Orchestra toured Switzerland and Germany. Highlights included a joint concert with the Zurich Youth Orchestra celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Zurich Conservatory and a special appearance at the prestigious Ludwigsburger Schlossfestspiele in Germany. There CYS was the only youth orchestra invited to perform. In October 2000 the Zurich Youth Orchestra came to California to present a collaborative concert with CYS.

In addition to exciting international collaborations, CYS has continued its commitment to provide classical musical opportunities to a wide range of young musicians on all symphonic instruments. With the addition of new programs CYS now offers beginning through advanced instruction and performance opportunities on all symphonic instruments.

The fall of 2001 represented the beginning of CYS' 50th anniversary season. The season opened auspiciously. The reviewer from the San Mateo County Times wrote: "As a testimony to the musical reputation that has accrued to the California Youth Symphony in recent years, an astonishing 2,000 people packed the Flint Center in Cupertino last weekend for this season's opening concert....[CYS] is undoubtedly one of the best youth orchestras in the United States, if not the world."

The 50th anniversary celebrations in June 2002 included an "alumni all-star" reunion concert. Membership in the "All Stars" was limited to those alumni who showed up with their instrument. There was a festive dinner afterward at the Stanford Faculty Club. Honored guests included Gladys Woodhams, founding board member of the California Youth Symphony.

Completing a very festive and busy season, in summer 2002 the CYS Orchestra visited France on its fourteenth international tour. A highlight was the invitation to appear at the prestigious Festival de Sully as part of National Music Day. The final concert, in l'Eglise St. Merri, was so enthusiastically received that, after a standing ovation and three encores (all the orchestra knew), CYS could do no more than say a final "merci" and prepare for the journey home.

The 51st season for the California Youth Symphony, while lacking the excitement and attention of the previous year, was a great success nonetheless. November featured Natasha Paremski, winner of the 2002 CYS Young Artist Competition, playing the Brahms Piano concerto No. 2 . She left the audience with mouths agape. Local critic Daniel Leeson, writing for the prestigious San Francisco Classical Voice, declared "It is a memorable event — akin to being mystical — to hear a 15-year-old with the talent of pianist Natasha Paremski." Describing the CYS program in general, he wrote "they make a potent statement about what motivated and well-directed young men and women supported by their parents and community are capable of doing with the symphonic repertoire."

But in addition to artistic triumphs, there were two major challenges to meet as well. Since the late 1960’s CYS had held its weekly rehearsals at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, and through participation in the College’s Performing Arts Alliance, had not been required to pay any use fees since the mid 1980’s. However, due to a remodeling project which eliminated the orchestra rehearsal room, as well as changes in the Arts Alliance, Foothill informed CYS that they would no longer be able to host rehearsals. This, of course, presented a major hurdle on two levels – to find suitable, available space and to find room in the budget to pay for it.

To deal with the first issue the board selected a committee to research and contact possible rehearsal venues in the area. Since Foothill College had given CYS lengthy notice of the impending change, over a period of six months the committee contacted and reviewed dozens of possible sites, eventually selecting Gunn High School in Palo Alto to host the string and wind preparatory ensembles and Almond School in Los Altos to host the Associate and Senior orchestras.
The budgetary issues reflected a larger challenge facing CYS, and most nonprofits in California, namely, the decline of public, and to some extent private, charitable support. Fortunately, CYS had received a grant from the Packard Foundation's Organizational Effectiveness Program in October 2001 which provided for the services of a consultant with expertise in fundraising and organizational development. The process through which the consultant led the board, staff and volunteers was lengthy and detailed, but eventually began to pay significant dividends.

International touring continued to play a part in the CYS program in 2004 when the senior orchestra visited Italy on the first CYS tour there. However, offering concerts for local audiences remained the priority. In July of 2004, after returning from the Italy tour, CYS performed as the opening act at the Children’s Health Council’s prestigious "Summer Symphony" benefit concert at Stanford’s Frost Amphitheatre on July 18. The event drew a capacity audience of over 6,000. CYS appeared there again in 2005, thrilling the standing-room-only crowd with selections from Star Wars and other famous movies, along with more classical selections.

Other recent artistic successes include the world premiere performance of Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra by renowned local composer Paul Davies in December 2005, the release of a new CD, The Maestro’s Pick, also in the fall of 2005, and the spring 2006 release of a DVD drawn from the televised concert at the San mateo Performing Arts Center in November 2005. The critics were duly impressed. The San Mateo County Times senior critic Keith Kreitman attended the May 2005 concert and reported "As is typical, Eylar had no mercy with his charges, throwing two complex works at the group: "Dance Suite" by 20th century's Bela Bartok and the late Leonard Bernstein's "Symphonic Suite" from the movie "On the Waterfront." Both are finger-busting, rhythmically challenging and harmonically complex works. Again, the kids defied him and put on another flawless program that stirred the blood and sent shivers up the spine." In May 2006 he reported that CYS is "one of the best of the world's youth symphonies, certainly".

Other notable achievements during this time period included the addition of an orchestra manager to help coordinate the growing number of young participants, the addition of pre-concert lectures by Mr. Eylar, the expansion of auxiliary programs during summer camps and throughout the year, including presentations by the Cypress String Quartet and a music history presentation from the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

In June of 2006 CYS launched its 16th international tour. The planning and preparation for the tour took two full years. A vigorous fundraising campaign raised a large sum for the scholarship fund as well as to keep overall costs low. A $25,000 grant from Shanghai General Motors provided additional support for ground costs in China. The tour was a smashing success, featuring performances at Peking University, the Suzhou Children’s Festival, and the Shanghai Music Hall and other venues, as well as appearances on Chinese television, articles in the Chinese press, etc. Adding a special dimension to the tour was the fact that over half of the CYS participants traced their cultural heritage to China. A large cover story in the Sunday "LifeStyle" section of the San Jose Mercury News on June 11, 2006 explored this and other facets of the tour.