Turning 50

The Fort Worth Youth Orchestra has produced a long line of men and women who went on to distinguished careers as professional musicians.

An international tour is a significant part of the youth orchestra experience. The 2014 tour to Italy featured a concert in the Tuscan city of Lucca. Photo courtesy of the Fort Worth Youth Orchestra.

Without the Fort Worth Youth Orchestra, John Giordano might never have become music director and conductor at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. He was there at the start 50 years ago, and that experience influenced his decision to pursue a career of international professional conducting.

Without the Youth Orchestra, Dr. Elisabeth Adkins, professor of violin at TCU, might never have spent 31 seasons at the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

Without the Youth Orchestra, the ranks of musicians at major venues across the country might be thinner, and hundreds of students would not have encountered the life-changing experience of classical music.

“Every year, we have students admitted into major music programs throughout the country,” said Dr. Germán Gutiérrez, the current music director and director of orchestras at TCU. “We are proud to say that many professional orchestras have our former students among them, and we have produced many talented music educators.”

The orchestra was formed in 1965 by a community group headed by Betty Utter and under the direction of Ezra Rachlin, then music director and conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony, and Giordano. From that founding, the orchestra has grown from one orchestra to four with more than 300 students who must audition to be included. It is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

“The level of professionalism and responsibility that is required of a young musician in the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra does translate into later musical activity, as well as many other endeavors in life,” said Adkins. “Serious high school musicians, I believe, have a focus and a work ethic that is developed beyond their peers.”

She’s proud her son and daughter were accepted into the program. Adkins joined the orchestra at age 11 and went on one of the orchestra’s signature international tours six weeks later. She later was concertmaster at the UNT Orchestra just a few years later. She was named associate concertmaster at the National Symphony Orchestra at the age of 25.

Giordano began his musical career as a saxophonist, but the youth orchestra quickly expanded his horizons. “Through the youth orchestra, I became intimately familiar with the greatest symphonic repertoire,” he said. “When one has to memorize every aspect of a masterpiece like a Beethoven symphony, for example, it becomes part of your spirit, and the true meaning of the work becomes more inspirational and fulfilling. It is different to learn the work as a whole — not only as an individual member of the ensemble.”

Orchestra Executive Director Willa Dunleavy is a woman with a mission. “All children should have music. I think they deserve it,” she said. “And I think the youth orchestra fulfils that spot in our community where all children can come and learn how to play and perform the great classical literature. I believe we are the future of classical music in our schools, in our community and in our country.” She taught 30 years in the Fort Worth schools as a music educator and supervisor of choral music.

“What I get out of it is the joy of seeing young people come to Orchestra Hall week after week to look at a piece of music they’ve never seen and work on it together and then perform it in concert,” Dunleavy said. “The excitement I see in their eyes — just the sheer thrill of being in an orchestra — really inspires me.”

Students learn more than music, Giordano says. Music at this level required a high amount of self-discipline. “It has helped to create leaders in every walk of life by their applying the lessons learned as a member of the youth orchestra.”