Canberra Youth Orchestra celebrates 50 years

Canberra Youth Orchestra celebrates 50 years

In 2017, the Canberra Youth Orchestra celebrates 50 years of making music. Kathleen Grant is chief executive officer and artistic director of Music for Canberra, the organisation formed in 2015 when Canberra Youth Music (encompassing choirs and orchestras, including the CYO) merged with Music for Everyone (inclusion music lessons). She says the CYO's predecessor, the Canberra Youth Orchestra Society traces its origins to 1962 and a small informal gathering of external players with the Braddon Catholic Girls High School Orchestra.

"They were initially conducted by a Brigidine nun, Mother Winifred, with James McCusker, a keen violin player, called to assist with writing the parts (in the days before photocopiers!). Later that year they reversed the roles.

Canberra Youth Orchestra 50 year anniversary: Sam Cass, Felicity Gallagher, Stephen Leek, Barbara Jane Gilby and Matthew Stuckings.

Canberra Youth Orchestra 50 year anniversary: Sam Cass, Felicity Gallagher, Stephen Leek, Barbara Jane Gilby and Matthew Stuckings.Credit:Rohan Thomson

"There was no auditioning (like there is now) and all who were interested were welcome. Public performances were an essential part of the orchestra to supplement lessons, exams and eisteddfods and develop member experience and musicality. Only 10 years after its creation, it consisted of 130 players spread across four ensembles including the Canberra Youth Orchestra and the James McCusker Orchestra."

And over the decades, with the implementation of financial support of Arts ACT and its own fundraising and the ongoing assistance of the ANU School of Music, it's survived and thrived. Many of its alumni have gone on to pursue musical careers as performers, composers, teachers including prominent musicians such as cellist Julian Smiles, French horn player Rob Gladstones and opera singer Warwick Fyfe.


Ross Gilby was the inaugural president of the Canberra Junior Orchestra as it was originally called when the initial group at Braddon moved to the Griffin Centre in late 1966. It was incorporated in February 1967 - hence the 50-year-anniversary this year - and, he says. because "the kids were fed up" with the "junior" appellation, the ensemble's name was changed to the Canberra Youth Orchestra in 1970.

Gilby and his wife Marjorie had four children go through the CYO and were heavily involved in it for many years helping with administration and fundraising - including for the CYO's first overseas trip to Europe in 1974. It was, they say, the first time some of the young people had flown in an aeroplane, quite apart from being abroad, and the experience inspired many to pursue further musical studies.

Another highlight the Gilbys recall is an encounter with violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin when he came to Canberra. They say he was invited to visit the orchestra but his schedule wouldn't allow it, so they took the orchestra to the airport and started playing a Beethoven symphony in the lounge. When Menuhin got off his plane he was confronted with the sight of a group of young musicians making music just for him and the conductor handed over the baton mid-performance so Menuhin could lead them for a few bars.

Current CYO conductor Leonard Weiss says, "I'm excited to showcase contemporary music throughout our 50th year."

Canberra Youth Orchestra's Leonard Weiss.

Canberra Youth Orchestra's Leonard Weiss.Credit:Rohan Thomson

The first 2017 concert on April 8 will feature Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from Wet Side Story, a suite from the film score How to Train Your Dragon and what Weiss says is "A personal highlight of our 50th year" ,the Canberra-formed vocal group The Idea of North as soloists.

He says, "I feel that it is important to showcase the excellent musical quality that Canberra continues to produce - particularly when celebrating such a milestone year for the orchestra."

Five players representing five decades of the Canberra Youth Orchestra.

Barbara Jane Gilby

Violinist and teacher

Canberra Youth Orchestra 50 year anniversary: Barbara Jane Gilby.

Canberra Youth Orchestra 50 year anniversary: Barbara Jane Gilby.Credit:Rohan Thomson

I first heard about what was then the Canberra Junior Orchestra in about 1966 through my violin teacher Josette Esquedin. The conductor was James McCusker and it was a fairly motley group with many flutes and a smattering of strings that rehearsed at what was then Catholic Girls High North. I joined with my parents' encouragement and "regretfully" had to give up ballet classes which were also on Saturday morning.

I played from: 1966 until 1975.

When the Junior Orchestra became the Youth Orchestra: it was conducted by Andrew McCullough then Christopher Niccols, Nelson Cooke and Josette Esquedin.

Until 1963 there was no professional violinist in Canberra. I learned the piano from a family friend as did my older sister. When Josette Esquedin came to Canberra (a Belgian-trained, ex-Melbourne Symphony Orchestra violinist) because of her husband's posting, my mother (who played the violin and pain and sang) signed me up and I commenced the violin at the somewhat late age of nine.

Fifty-four years later I am still playing. In 1976 (after graduating as the first violinist from the Canberra School of Music) I went to Boston USA to study then worked in orchestras in Germany until 1984. I returned to Australia and was Concertmaster of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra until 1999. In 2000 I was appointed to a teaching position at the National Institute of the Arts (ANU) and returned to Canberra. The further history of that School is well known and since 2012 I have taught violin privately at my home studio. In 2010 I auditioned for the position of Concertmaster of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra and currently fulfil that role.I also give solo recitals, perform in numerous other ensembles and do guest work with other Australian and overseas (Hong Kong, Macau, New Zealand) orchestras.

The highlight of my time in CYO: was the orchestra's first overseas trip. To raise funds to attend the International Festival of Youth Orchestras in Aberdeen, the orchestra raffled a house in Rivett and the players undertook many other activities such as a coin chain and a playathon. At that time my two sisters (Anne and Janet) and brother (Martin) were also in the orchestra and my parents were chaperones for the trip. Anne and I were chosen by audition to play in the International Orchestra that gave a concert conducted by Rudolph Schwartz and Aaron Copland and Anne won a scholarship to study in London.

My favourite music: is always what I'm currently playing.

Stephen Leek

Composer, conductor, educator and publisher

Canberra Youth Orchestra 50 year anniversary: Stephen Leek

Canberra Youth Orchestra 50 year anniversary: Stephen LeekCredit:Rohan Thomson

How did you hear about the CYO? In the 1970s the CYO and its many training orchestras was a natural pathway for young musicians. Many of my friends at high school and in my high school orchestra had joined various ensembles in the CYO stable and had said that I should join also, so I did.

Why did you join the CYO? CYO at that time was the only real pathway for a young musician and the musician ship then was of a very high standard.

When did you play in the CYO and for how long? 1976 - 1983

Who were your conductors? Wilf Jones and Rick McIntyre

What instrument did you play? Cello.

Are you still playing? Very rarely these days but I occasionally teach the cello and my conducting and composition work certainly constantly on my knowledge of all instruments

What are you doing now? 40 years freelancing as a composer, conductor, educator; currently artistic director/manager of Young Music Society and vice-president of the International Federation for Choral Music

Were there highlights in your years with the CYO? Many- the tours (national and international), the people, the music, the concerts. The fundraising (for the tours) was not a highlight

Do you remember anyone special from your time with CYO? I remember almost everyone from my days in CYO as I many have come up to me after my concerts around the world and said hello. I am still in regular touch with many of my friends from that time. The group was very sociable when I was in CYO and many of the people from that time now have international careers including Howard Penny, Alan Smith, the Hartsteins, Wendy Quinlan, Virginia Taylor, All the horn players - Robin Smiles, Gerard Pattacca, Robert Gladstones, Jenny McCloud -, Susan Williams, Eve and Padma Newsome, and the list goes on ...

Did you have any favourite repertoire? Most of what we played but I guess especially the contemporary, 20th century and Australian works - Stravinsky, Meale etc.

Felicity Gallagher, primary school music teacher

Canberra Youth Orchestra 50 year anniversary: Felicity Gallagher.

Canberra Youth Orchestra 50 year anniversary: Felicity Gallagher.Credit:Rohan Thomson

How did you hear about the CYO?

I moved to Canberra in 1995 to start a Bachelor of Music degree at the ANU with eminent flute teachers Virginia Taylor and Vernon Hill. It didn't take me long to hear about the CYO and it was at the end of 1995 that Virginia suggested I audition for the following year's orchestra. My audition must have been OK because I was accepted and played in CYO for about four years.

Why did you join the CYO?

As a flute player, you have quite limited opportunities to get orchestral experience. Playing in CYO gave me orchestral experience on a weekly basis which complemented what the School of Music's orchestra was giving me at the time.

When did you play in the CYO and for how long?


Who were your conductors?

I feel incredibly lucky to have had Max McBride and Dominic Harvey throughout my years in the CYO. I owe so much to them as they were always passionate and driven and they shared their amazing amount of experience and knowledge of what it is to be an orchestral musician with all members. I think back to those days and sometimes I pinch myself to have been so lucky!

What instruments did you play?

Flute and sometimes piccolo.

Are you still playing?

I still play the flute, mainly for my students to demonstrate a technique or a piece of music. I occasionally play at weddings and functions in the Canberra area.

What are you doing now?

After finishing my music performance degree at the ANU, I completed a Primary Education degree at the University of Canberra. I now work as a specialist music teacher at Hawker Primary School and a band teacher at the Instrumental Music Program.

What were the highlights with the CYO?

Oh, there are just too many! The Italian tour of 1998 was probably the highlight, but a close second would be playing Mahler 2 at the Sydney Opera House with Max conducting. The Strauss Ball at Albert Hall was a fun night too. Good times indeed.

What was your favourite repertoire?

Mahler, Shostakovich, playing the Quantz flute concerto with the orchestra in Italy.

Matthew Stuckings

Director of music, St Paul's Manuka, Director of chamber choir Igitur Nos, law student, University of Sydney.

Canberra Youth Orchestra 50 year anniversary: Matthew Stuckings.

Canberra Youth Orchestra 50 year anniversary: Matthew Stuckings.Credit:Rohan Thomson

Why did you join the CYO?

I moved to Canberra to study at ANU in science and arts and wanted to join some sort of music group with people my age.

When were you in the CYO?

In 1999 I joined the Canberra Youth Orchestra Society and played trumpet in the Wind Symphony until 2001. From 2002 until 2003 I was in the CYO proper.

Who were your conductors?

Tony Lazzarato (Wind Symphony) and Max McBride and Dom Harvey (CYO). I've also been studying conducting with Max.

Do you still play?

I still play trumpet and conduct - I've moved more into choral conducting, there are more opportunities and it's a particular passion I have. I've played trumpet in the Law Revue in Sydney during the last couple of years and I'm a member of the chapel choir at St Paul's College in Sydney.

Do you have any special memories of the CYO?

I've always liked to play with other people and create something and especially young people have that raw energy. We did some extraordinary repertoire and we used to go out to the Peter Crisp Gallery every year at Bowning for the Strauss Ball. On one occasion the ABC filmed an episode of Australian Story with us and the young pianist Aaron McMillan which was quite a special moment as he was just about to undergo brain surgery.

What is your favourite repertoire?

I love Stravinsky and we did Petrushka in my time with Dom Harvey.

Sam Cass

First year student at the ANU.

Canberra Youth Orchestra 50 year anniversary: Sam Cass.

Canberra Youth Orchestra 50 year anniversary: Sam Cass.Credit:Rohan Thomson

How did you hear about the CYO?

I've been involved in the Sydney Youth Orchestras since primary school, and my previous conductor at SYO recommended that I join the CYO while studying in Canberra.

Why did you join the CYO?

I joined the CYO because I wanted to keep up my love of music while at university. I find that ensemble playing is far more inspiring and enjoyable than playing solo - there's nothing quite like a group of like-minded young people brought together by a shared love of great music.

When did you play in the CYO and for how long?

I've actually only just begun playing in the CYO this year, as principal clarinettist.

Who is the conductor?

Leonard Weiss.

What instrument do you play and why?

I started playing clarinet when I was about six or seven years old. My mum used to play when she was younger, and she had a very old Yamaha clarinet lying around the house. I found it and asked her to show me how it worked - and I haven't looked back! Since then I've also started playing piano and saxophone, but clarinet is my main instrument. I hope to keep playing for many years! I can't imagine life without playing music - it's a great creative outlet, and it keeps me sane.

What are you doing now?

I'm currently studying a combined Bachelor of Arts and Laws at ANU.

What do you especially enjoy about your time with the CYO?

I've already met too many great people to name through CYO, and I'm looking forward to sharing great experiences with them over the next few years!

What is your favourite repertoire to play?

I'm a sucker for grand, spine-tingling Romantic symphonies - Tchaikovsky's Sixth is probably my favourite orchestral piece that I've played. I'm also really excited to play Mahler 1 later this year!

The first Canberra Youth Orchestra for 2017 is on at Llewellyn Hall on Saturday, April 8 at 7.30pm.

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