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Youth Orchestra marks 75 years

We talk to 90-year-old William Foster, who played the first year — and is still making music today.

The Dayton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra marks a 75th anniversary this weekend, and 90-year-old William Foster is one of many music lovers looking forward to the celebration.

Over the years, nine conductors and more than 7,000 young musicians — including Foster — have shared their talents with the youth orchestra. Along with the current crop of 102 high school students from 24 schools throughout the Miami Valley, they’ll be honored at the upcoming 75th anniversary concert on Sunday, May 5, at the Benjamin & Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center. The public is encouraged to attend.

Youth Orchestra Conductor Patrick Reynolds, assistant conductor of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, has chosen musical selections designed to honor all of those who’ve had a hand in making the youth orchestra successful over the years — especially music teachers. The afternoon program will open with the Overture from Candide by Leonard Bernstein, followed by “Dusk” by Steven Bryant. It will conclude with Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.”

Reynolds estimates that about a fourth of the DPYO musicians go on to become professional educators, performers and arts administrators. A dozen former DPYO members currently perform with the Dayton Philharmonic.

The Orchestra’s Beginnings

Paul Katz, Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s founder and conductor, is credited with forming the group originally known as the Dayton Philharmonic Training Orchestra. It has the distinction of being the third youth orchestra in America and performing at New York’s famous Carnegie Hall on its 50th anniversary.

“It was evident we needed a training group in order to expand our orchestra,” Katz wrote in his memoir “My 42 Years with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra.”

“While it’s one thing to import from surrounding cities, it’s better to develop our own musicians. That is the reason for the youth orchestra,” he wrote.

That certainly proved true for William Foster, who joined the orchestra in its first year as an oboe player and ended up becoming principal flute for the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra for 36 years. In addition to teaching, he played with the Dayton Opera for 25 years and with Bassett’s Band. He’s still performing with the Kettering Civic Band, The Letter Carriers Band and the Shrine Brothers Band.

“People want to know if I’m a flutist or a flautist, and I tell them I’m not highfalutin enough to be a flautist,” Foster said jokingly. He grew up in Ohmer Park in Dayton’s East End and went to Stivers High School. His mother played piano; his dad played banjo, mandolin and fife; and from the time he was a little boy, Foster was playing the harmonica with his sister on the    ukelele.

His youth orchestra days, he says, gave him his first exposure to playing great classical music and the experience to survive in the big orchestra.

“It was during the Depression, and kids couldn’t afford private lessons or instruments,” he recalled. “Paul Katz and Marjorie Klein, the first conductors, had to have a lot of perseverance to put it all together and make it successful.”

Musicians add feedback

Katie Williams of Manchester, England, a flutist in the DPYO from 2001-2005, went on to study at The Ohio State University and was then offered a full scholarship at the Royal Northern College of Music in England.

“I see my time in the DPYO as very influential in laying the foundations in my music education and a significant reason I realized my passion to pursue music as a profession,” she said. “Playing in an orchestral flute section requires quite a different skill-set compared to playing in band. As my school did not have an orchestra, the DPYO provided this opportunity to learn such vital skills that I would not have received otherwise.”

Williams says the orchestra’s performance opportunities were essential preparation for the future and performing under pressure.

“We got to play marvelous repertoire, the same as professional orchestras, and even got to sit alongside the DPO each year, which gave a sense of what it’s really like to be in a professional orchestra,” she said, adding that she always looked forward to the three-hour Sunday rehearsals as both social and musical outlets.

“The benefits I gained from my four years in the DPYO didn’t end when I graduated from high school,” Williams adds. “Going into college as a music major, I felt confident in my ability to perform under pressure, to work within a section, and I was familiar with a good amount of orchestral repertoire.”

Patrick Reynolds Conducts

Reynolds, who has led the DPYO for the past 13 years, says it’s the best job in the world.

“When you work with young musicians every day, every rehearsal, every concert you get to relive what it was like to experience great music for the first time,” said Reynolds, who also is a member of the music faculty at the University of Dayton and conducts the University Orchestra and the Symphonic Wind Ensemble. “It gives students who have talent and desire to excel a chance to get together and make music with students who share that trait.”

Reynolds insists it isn’t just the students who benefit.

“A youth orchestra shows a community’s commitment to excellence and opportunity for young people,” he said. “Not everybody can be on the football team, and not everybody can be president of this-or-that organization, but everyone deserves to have the opportunity to be part of something truly special.”

Although most of his orchestra’s musicians won’t spend their lives as professionals, Reynolds says they will never forget the rich musical opportunity.

“They will take that with them wherever they go — when they become parents or community leaders or school board members,” he said. “Their love of music will become part of their philosophy about their own communities.”

That’s certainly true for William Foster, who at 90 is still entertaining folks throughout the Miami Valley. He insists it’s music that accounts for his longevity — requiring both mental and physical exercise.

“I’ve had so much fun playing,” he said. “I’ve had great experiences and met great people!”

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