"The Youth Symphony was born on Saturday morning, April 7, 1956. No infant ever bawled so lustily."
Walking into the Norwalk high School on East Avenue, a reporter for The New York Herald Tribune encountered "a tumult of shrill violin solos, braying trumpets, and rattling snare drums."
Some 90 youngsters, ranging in age from ten to eighteen, traveled from seven Fairfield and three Westchester communities to answer the call for that first audition. ("Saxophone, baritone, or mandolin players will not be needed," said one announcement. "However, players of sousaphone may qualify for tuba.") Fifty-five were accepted as members.
Founded by John P. Master with the sponsorship of the Norwalk Symphony Society and the enthusiastic support of its president, Iden Kerney, the new orchestra represented a bold concept. At the time, there were probably no more than a few dozen youth symphonies in the entire country. Most limited their performances to simplified transcriptions of familiar works. The new orchestra's executive committee, consisting of Iden Kerney, Richard Ide, and conductor John Master, had a loftier goal.
From its inception, the Norwalk Symphony Youth Orchestra, as it was first called, would perform works of great composers as they were written. By setting this high standard the founders hoped to give young performers new opportunities for musical growth.
The Youth Orchestra's first concert was presented on December 1, 1956 at the old Norwalk High School auditorium.
In addition to subscription concerts in Norwalk and performances in surrounding communities, the 1958-59 season featured further development of an innovation introduced the previous year: special Saturday morning workshop concerts for Norwalk schoolchildren. With the cooperation of Alton Fraleigh, Music Director of the Norwalk schools, workshop concerts in January and March of '59 gave hundreds of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders a chance to see and hear a "live" symphony orchestra, an experience for which they were prepared by a series of school lectures and taped presentations.
By the following season, 1959-60, the Youth Symphony had grown to 80 members. After auditions for the 1960-61 season the number grew to 85, plus a hefty card file of "reserves", youngsters who showed promise in their auditions yet could not be accepted into the orchestra immediately.
Seizing the opportunity, the "file cards" were invited to make music in their own Reserve Orchestra, conducted by Robert Genualdi. This marked the birth of what is now the Norwalk Youth Symphony Concert Orchestra, a respected performing unit in its own right.
The last subscription concert of the 1960-61 season was a major event. The first half of the ambitious program featured Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, with radio and television personality Jack Sterling as narrator. In the second half, the Youth Symphony joined forces with the 90-voice Staples High School Choir in a series of selections, ending with Handel's Hallelujah Chorus.
The gala concert marked more than the end of another successful season. To a standing ovation, John Master took his last bows before a home audience. The founding conductor left a proud record of accomplishment. Under his baton, the Youth Symphony proved its ability to play, as written, a wide variety of works by composers old and new. Soloists drawn from the Youth Symphony's membership were given opportunities to perform challenging concertos with full orchestral accompaniment, a tradition maintained today with the annual Concerto Competition. Most important of all, the original 55-member group had grown into an independent organization made up of a full Youth Symphony plus a promising Reserve (now Concert) Orchestra.
Just when did it first become clear that the Youth Symphony was here to stay? Clippings from the archives suggest a specific event: the Youth Symphony's first out-of-state appearance in the winter of 1960. By rights, it should have been a disaster:
Boston, March 12, 1960. 9:45 p.m. On stage at the Boston University Concert Hall, confronted by a restless audience, all but three members of the Youth Symphony sit glumly. They are trapped in a venture that has seemed predestined for failure: a joint concert with The Greater Boston Youth Symphony.
A week earlier, the original concert date was wiped out by eighteen inches of snow. The rescheduled date coincided with College Board exams, leaving the orchestra's travel plans in shambles. Now intermission is over. The Norwalk Youth Symphony's half of the concert was scheduled to begin five minutes ago-and three essential members of the orchestra are still missing. The conductor takes one last look down Commonwealth Avenue and prepares to proceed without them.
One minute later, a car with Connecticut plates reaches the Concert Hall. Out tumble three tired musicians, their exams finished only hours earlier. Within another minute, they are in their places and John Master is leading the frazzled but complete Norwalk Youth Symphony in Handel's Overture to Theodora...
The Youth Symphony "never played better" than it did that evening, the Norwalk Hour reported. The conductor of The Greater Boston Youth Symphony added that the newer Norwalk group compared very favorably to his own.
After that, who could doubt that the Youth Symphony would endure and flourish? The orchestra had proved itself worthy of praise received a year earlier in Women's Day magazine:
"For teenagers ... in the East, making the Norwalk Youth Symphony means reaching the top."