The Youth Symphony of DuPage’s annual spring concert has an added note of excitement as the organization celebrates 50 years of making music.
On Friday, May 9, under the direction of Meng-Kong Tham, more than 150 area musicians will take the stage at Wentz Concert Hall for a fitting conclusion to the anniversary season.
“In my mind and in my heart, I always think of them as a cultural asset of the community,” said Tham, the symphony’s music director and conductor since 1977. “I am just here to teach them, and what they do generates so much energy.”
Founded in 1963 by music educators Hazel Wunsch and Dr. Harold Best as the Wheaton Youth Symphony, the organization was created to give “advanced young musicians a broader and more challenging ensemble learning and performance experience.”
That mission continues with both a symphony orchestra for advanced junior high and high school musicians and a concert orchestra for advanced grade school and junior high school musicians.
“It’s the philosophy and the vision of Meng-Kong Tham who has been with us for 37 years,” said Kimberlie Richter, assistant conductor. “He brought along the mission that this orchestra is to nurture kids in the love of music. He really cares about them and about fostering a love for the art of music for the rest of their lives.”
Auditions are held each spring for musicians playing strings, winds, brass and percussion. With weekly practices in Naperville and three performances at Wentz Concert Hall each year, Richter said it’s a privilege to work with students.
“They are committed; these are kids who really, really want to be here,” Richter said. “It is so wonderful to see these kids when they come in and to see the progress and growth that happens over the year, and know that you got to be a part of their journey.”
Tham shared the sentiment.
“The number of years I have spent with this organization pretty much speaks for quite a bit of it,” said Tham, who was the assistant conductor of Chicago’s Civic Orchestra for 12 years and a faculty member of DePaul University’s School of Music for 30 years. “It’s not just me giving, but I receive so much in return from them. I am working with a group of very talented young musicians.”
Tham said today’s youth have hectic schedules and a plethora of choices for their free time, but every Monday during their season, which runs from September through May, students choose music.
“Children today have so much going on; they could spend two hours easily at the mall, playing video games, doing anything,” said Tham, of Chicago. “But they take lessons and work individually, and then they come to rehearsal and work as a team. I look at the mission of this group, not to train them just to play music, but to have them experience it.”
Based on a half century of seasons and thousands of musicians who have filtered through the ranks, it’s a formula that works.
“It’s a whole new family here,” said Zac Ceresa, a Naperville Central High School freshman and symphony member for five years. “Mr. Tham teaches me so much even when he is not talking to my section, (what he is saying) relates to what are doing and helps me improve as a player. Being part of this is an honor.”