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Meet Varina Bleil of American Youth Symphony in Mid-Wilshire

Today we’d like to introduce you to Varina Bleil.

Co-Founded in 1964 by world-renowned conductor Mehli Mehta, the American Youth Symphony (AYS) provides paid Fellowships that provide 21st century professional orchestral training to approximately 100 musicians who are selected through a highly competitive audition process and represent talent from all over the world. AYS musicians range in age from high school through doctoral programs, and represent anywhere from 25 to 35 different schools from Southern California each season.

Additionally, AYS provides 5-6 FREE and EXCEPTIONAL concerts per year to the Los Angeles community. AYS concerts are presented at renowned and respected music venues such as Royce Hall and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. A typical AYS season includes 8 concerts in total, and the very few concerts that are not free are offered at a significantly reduced ticket price out of our longstanding commitment to eliminating the financial barriers for our community to discover and experience remarkable orchestral works.

American Youth Symphony was built on a foundation of social justice. Maestro Mehta made sure AYS was one of the first orchestras of its kind to provide professional experience to young musicians of color and women, at a time when there were few such training and performance opportunities available. Today, AYS is one of the only pre-professional orchestras in the country to offer musicians the opportunity to audition free of charge, and auditions are always blind, insuring musicians are never judged by race or gender, and solely by merit. Additionally, as a result of AYS’ longstanding commitment to eliminating the financial barriers to attending exceptional orchestral concerts, AYS audiences are some of the most diverse to be found in classical music today. Lastly, AYS is committed to partnerships with underserved communities, including providing transportation to our concerts, free admission to ticketed AYS concerts, coordination with retirement centers and under-served community centers for support attending concerts, and through our Share-A-Stand music education program at Title 1 LAUSD Middle Schools.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
AYS is now celebrating its 52nd season and while this is a remarkable accomplishment for any classical music institution, it is especially so for our organization due to the challenges that AYS is not a traditional “youth orchestra” (i.e. parents pay tuition) nor a professional orchestra (i.e. we receive revenue from our concerts). AYS is a youth orchestra in name only as it relates to what Americans think of as a “youth” orchestra. Many European countries have youth orchestras similar to the AYS model, but in the USA there are only a handful, such as New World Symphony in Miami, FL, and Civic Orchestra in Chicago, IL. This means that AYS, with virtually no budget for marketing, is often challenged in getting the word out about what an incredible gift we are the Los Angeles community. Our concerts are also presented free, which also creates somewhat of a bias to someone who has never attended an AYS concert, equating the price of our concerts with the caliber of the experience. This could not be farther from the truth as our many first-time attendees post-concert survey quotes attest. Once someone comes to an AYS concert, they almost always come back and their enthusiasm is palpable. In fact, when I started my job, I was told that “AYS is one of the best kept secrets in LA.” That is not by design, and we now boast 87% of our concerts “selling out” (a.k.a fully reserved tickets in advance of the concert), but we are constantly challenged to make sure more people in LA to know about us so that all the effort the AYS community puts into presenting exceptional concerts reaches as many people as possible, especially those who could not otherwise afford classical music concerts.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with American Youth Symphony – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
The American Youth Symphony’s mission is to inspire the future of classical music. We share exceptional, innovative concerts based on our landmark Fellowship program for musicians aged 15-27 for free or signifi- cantly reduced admission. Competitively selected, our orchestra is comprised of 100 musicians who repre- sent extraordinary talent from all over the world. By gifting our community with remarkable concerts at world-class venues, we remain committed to creating access and opportunity for everyone to experience the inspiration of this beautiful art form.

Through the presentation of standard, contemporary and newly commissioned work, AYS prepares the very best aspiring musicians in our community for careers in classical music, while concurrently building audiences that support this beautiful art form. For example, this season alone includes a concert featuring blockbuster video game music side-by-side with canonical works and a Q&A with the video game composers discussing the influence of classical music on their career and composing, a live-to-film concert of BACK TO THE FUTURE, and legendary rock n’roll guitarist Steve Vai soloing with AYS at Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 11, 2017. Via high-quality programming and guest artists, innovative concerts designed to connect with younger audiences, and targeted outreach to diverse communities, AYS has a proven track record of engaging audiences that reflect the diversity in age, ethnicity and cultural background for which our great city of Los Angeles is known. In fact, AYS audiences are some of the most diverse to be found in classical music today.

AYS is among the most highly regarded pre-professional orchestras in the United States. We fill a unique niche in the musical pantheon via our commitment to audience and musician development. After 52 years in the community, AYS has firmly established itself as a “gateway” orchestra for aspiring musicians, as well as the field of classical music at-large. AYS alumni have joined the finest orchestras in the nation, including the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Metropolitan Opera, to name a few. The three leading orchestras in Los Angeles – the LA Philharmonic, the LA Chamber Orchestra, and the LA Opera – employ 37 AYS graduates. Regarding audience development, what initially starts out as a free opportunity to experience something new, more often than not develops therefrom – via the caliber of our performances, a majestic concert hall, and the inherent beauty and power of this music – into a substantive system of support for professional orchestras.

In addition to our unique programming, success of our alumni, and our uniquely diverse audience base, we are very proud of regularly providing bus transportation and other assistance to bring underserved students and their families, low-income retirement center residents, and underserved community center clients to our concerts. Additionally, the AYS “Share-A-Stand” program brings orchestra members to middle schools in under- served communities wherein, over the course of a school year, AYS musicians conduct master classes, lead sectionals, and rehearse side-by-side in a mentoring role to music students from these schools.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
AYS is looking to expand our professional development for our orchestra Fellows to include other paid Fellowship opportunities. For example, we are currently fundraising to create a Musician Citizenship Fellowship for 1-2 musicians so that they can research, project manager, and ultimately produce a musical experience that specifically addresses a current need in the Los Angeles community in hopes of bringing more beauty and support for a specific civic cause (i.e. homelessness, food shortage, environmental causes, etc.).

We are also currently looking to expand the number of schools and students who benefit from our “Share-A-Stand” program, as well as continue to collaborate with other organizations and artists across a wide spectrum of talents and interests. For example, this season we engaged a local dance troupe to perform during our May 14th concert as we perform Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (originally written for dance), and next season AYS will be partnering with Human Rights Watch to present a concert of classical music written for and about human rights issues, in conjunction with HRW’s Student Task Force wherein we will perform and HRW will lead discussions at local high schools about human rights issues in advance of our concert at Royce Hall.

Pricing:

  • Hollywood Project concerts (live-to-film series) are $15 tickets.
  • Walt Disney Concert Hall concerts (part of LA Phil’s Sounds About Town series) are $15-$46

Contact Info:

  • Address: 5150 Wilshire Blvd. Suite #506
    Los Angeles, CA 90036
  • Website: www.aysymphony.org
  • Phone: 310-470-2332
  • Email: varina.bleil@aysymphony.org

 
Image Credit:
Philip Holahan for group photo

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