A Brief History
For nearly 70 years, the Albuquerque Youth Symphony Program (AYSP) has provided high-quality music education and outstanding symphonic music performance opportunities for students to share their musical gifts with the community. Formed in 1955, AYSP began as a collaborative project between the Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) and the University of New Mexico (UNM).
Dr. Kurt Frederick of UNM’s Department of Music was the founding Music Director and conductor of the Youth Symphony, which in its earliest days was a single ensemble for students in grades 7-12 desiring a more robust symphonic music education and performance opportunities than those available in school orchestra and band programs. The group met on Saturday mornings during the school year on the UNM campus. Dr. Frederick, an Austrian-born violinist and conductor who came to Albuquerque in 1942, served on the faculty of the University of New Mexico Department of Music, and founded the UNM Symphony Orchestra, UNM Opera Workshop, UNM Madrigal Singers, Albuquerque Opera Theater (now Opera Southwest), and the Albuquerque Youth Symphony Program.
Representatives from the APS fine arts department learned about the fledgling extracurricular orchestra early on and were eager to become involved as well. Dr. Frederick conducted the orchestra, and APS music teachers assisted him, leading rehearsals working with smaller student groups on their orchestra music in sectional rehearsals.
During its first few years, with both UNM and APS nurturing the program, the Albuquerque Youth Symphony steadily grew and expanded to comprise two ensembles: the Junior Orchestra for students in grades 7–9, and the Youth Symphony for students in grades 10–12. In 1964, Dale Kempter succeeded Dr. Frederick as Music Director of the program. With ever-continuing student interest in the program over the next twenty years, Mr. Kempter led the expansion of the program from two orchestras to four: two high school orchestras, for students in grades 9-12, and two middle school orchestras, for students in grades 6-8.
In the early 1990s, a joint task force comprised of representatives of UNM and APS, along with various community leaders, recommended that AYSP become an independent non-profit organization under the governance of a board of directors. Still today, representatives of both APS and UNM provide valuable leadership to AYSP as members of the AYSP Board of Directors. Pursuant to a formal Memorandum of Understanding between APS and AYSP that has been in place for decades, AYSP sends several of its ensembles to perform for student audiences each fall at a number of APS elementary and middle schools. Most of the students who attend these school-day concerts have never seen or heard an orchestra perform live before, and many are eager take up an instrument themselves after hearing student musicians performing at such a high level. These interactive concerts are, consequently, important recruiting tools for both APS music programs and AYSP, as well as for music education generally in our community.
AYSP has also continued to strengthen its partnership with UNM, most notably in 2021 by implementing an apprenticeship program whereby AYSP high school seniors may audition to perform with the UNM Symphony Orchestra for one of its spring concert cycles. Students who are selected to participate in the program are often awarded music scholarships, should they choose to attend UNM, and the students are privileged to a glimpse of what it would be like to participate in a college symphony orchestra and to work under the direction of college music professors. AYSP also regularly invites UNM music faculty members to work with AYSP students hosting masterclasses and college preparation workshops to help students determine a path forward, both as music majors and non-music majors, after high school graduation.
Over the next 25 years, AYSP continued to expand under Music Directors Gabriel Gordon and Sayra Siverson to serve even more students, adding the Preparatory String Orchestra, Junior String Orchestra, Junior Band, Youth Concert Orchestra, a chamber music program for high school students participating in one of AYSP’s high school orchestras, an opera apprenticeship program, an educational outreach series, and a marimba ensemble for middle school students enrolled in one of AYSP’s middle school full orchestras.
In the early 2020s, AYSP hired Music Director Dan Whisler to oversee all artistic programs at AYSP and also to serve as conductor of the Youth Symphony. Mr. Whisler, a gifted music educator and prolific conductor, has conducted over 700 works with over 130 ensembles, including professional and college orchestras in the USA, England, Spain, Lithuania, Hungary, and Romania. Under Mr. Whisler’s leadership, AYSP has expanded yet again to include its first-ever program for beginning string students (with no prior instrumental instruction whatsoever) in grades 4-5, the Elementary String Project. ESP is a particularly significant program offering, as APS elementary schools do not offer instrumental music instruction.
During Mr. Whisler’s tenure, AYSP reinstituted its Private Lesson Program for AYSP students in grades 6-12 desiring to advance their musical skills and proficiencies through private music lessons on their instruments. AYSP’s Private Lesson Program pairs students with private instructors in the community and subsidizes up to 90% of the cost of the lessons, based upon student financial need. AYSP also added a middle school cello ensemble as an additional supplemental program for AYSP students.
AYSP’s top high school orchestra, the Youth Symphony, performs side-by-side during the holiday season each year with the New Mexico Philharmonic and Opera Southwest orchestras. The Youth Symphony and Youth Orchestra also combine to perform a holiday pops concert at a local community center. The combined Youth Symphony and Youth Orchestra ensembles also tour internationally, nationally, and regionally on a regular basis.
Perhaps one of the most significant milestones in the AYSP story to date is that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, AYSP – through careful research, planning, and prudent investment in filtration and sanitation equipment – was able to continue to provide in-person music education and performance experiences for its students. During a time when all schools were operating online only and most extracurricular student activities were canceled indefinitely, AYSP opened its doors to its students and to the possibilities presented for community, strength, and hope through harmony.
What began in 1955 as a single orchestra has steadily and sustainably grown to a program that today serves over 400 students annually in one of AYSP’s ten ensembles: three full symphony orchestras (for strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, and harp students) for high school students in grades 9-12; two full symphony orchestras, one string orchestra, and one woodwind, brass, and percussion ensemble for middle school students in grades 6-8; one string orchestra for students in grades 4-5 already taking private lessons on their instruments; and two beginning string ensembles for students in grades 4-5 with no prior instrumental instruction. These large ensembles, combined with AYSP’s supplemental programs for further student enrichment – high school chamber ensembles, middle school marimba and cello ensembles, AYSP’s Private Lesson Program, and the Castro Concerto Competition for rising high school seniors who compete each spring for the opportunity to perform a solo with the Youth Symphony onstage at Popejoy Hall – offer young musicians many opportunities to challenge themselves, improve their musical skills, and experience the joy of making music with a diverse community of student musicians from over 90 schools in a four-county area in and around Albuquerque.
It is thanks to numerous individuals each season – talented and highly trained artistic staff, administrative staff, board members, community partners, parents, and students – that AYSP continues a tradition of excellence in music education and performance.