The Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra was founded in the spring of 1976 as the Elgin Area Youth Orchestra. Margaret Hillis, then conductor of the Elgin Symphony and renowned Director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus wanted to establish an ensemble for the Fox River Valley’s exceptional musicians to gain additional orchestral experience. The Elgin Symphony League, under President Jane Chipman, organized a Youth Orchestra of string players, conducted by Robert Hanson and managed by volunteer Chari Peterson, which gave its first concert at a meeting of the Elgin Symphony League in May 1976. The Youth Orchestra idea was such a success that in the fall of 1976 two orchestras were formed: a string orchestra for younger players, with John Smentowksi as conductor, and a youth orchestra, to which wind, brass, and percussion players were added, with Robert Hanson as conductor. Elgin Symphony League members Ann Walz and Judy Steffen, as well as Jean Hove (then Concertmaster of the Elgin Symphony) assisted in many hours of volunteer work to create a strong foundation for the youth orchestra organization.
In its history, the Youth Symphony was fortunate to play under a distinguished roster of conductors. Jeordano Martinez eventually shared conducting responsibilities with Hanson and Paul Patterson assumed the position of String Orchestra conductor. When Patterson later took over the Youth Orchestra, Ann Rapp was engaged to conduct the String Orchestra, which she did for ten years 1981-1991. Following a nationwide search in 1983, David Katz was named new director of the EAYO. Other EAYO conductors have included Kevin Miller, Elizabeth Prielozny, Mark Rachelsky, and Colin Holman for the Youth Orchestra and Ray Ostwald, Martha Henrikson, and Rebecca Blaho for the String Orchestra.
In 1997, Robert Hanson and Paul Patterson returned to repeat their roles as interim conductors of the Youth Orchestra and String Orchestra. In 1998, after another wide search, Randal Swiggum was hired as Artistic Director and a Brass Choir was created, conducted by Jason Flaks. In 1999, the EAYO was officially renamed the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra, Kathy Matthews was welcomed as the new Executive Director, and Sarah Heidegger Case, herself an EAYO alumnus, was named the new conductor of the String Orchestra. The 1999-2000 season was marked with the premiere of Fanfare 2000 by renowned Elgin-born composer Daniel Brewbaker and commissioned by the EYSO. Other highlights of that season included joint performances with the Lisa Boehm Ballet Theatre, the Elgin Children’s Chorus, and acclaimed baritone Nathaniel Stampley, as well as a spring tour to Wisconsin and Minnesota. In May 2000, the EYSO was presented with the Illinois Council of Orchestras’ prestigious “Youth Orchestra of the Year” award, which was followed in 2001 by the ICO “Marketing Program of the Year” award, in recognition of the increasing exposure of the EYSO in the Chicago area and huge annual increases in concert ticket sales.
In 2001, the EYSO celebrated its 25th anniversary season, initiating the Robert Hanson Award, a summer music program scholarship for an outstanding member of the EYSO. The first award was presented at a gala concert that included alumni players from EYSO’s 25-year history joining the Youth Symphony in its now traditional season finale, “The Turtle Dove.”
In the 2002-03 season, the Philharmonia was expanded from a string orchestra to a full symphony orchestra and the Prelude Orchestra premiered the B Suite by Carrie Gruselle. New works by John Stevens and William Hofeldt were premiered by the Brass Choir and Philharmonia in the fall 2003 concert.
At the May 2004 concerts, Daniel Boico and Beth Mazur Wood (an alumnus of the EYSO) were introduced as new conductors of the Philharmonia and Prelude Orchestra, respectively. (Boico now serves as staff conductor with the New York Philharmonic.) The Youth Symphony was invited to perform at Ravinia on July 10, 2004, making it the first youth orchestra in the 100-year history of Ravinia to do so. Maestro Leslie Dunner, Music Director of the Joffrey Ballet conducted Dvorak’s New World Symphony. In 2005, the EYSO received the “Programming of the Year” award from the Illinois Council of Orchestras, another unusual distinction for a youth orchestra. The 2004-05 season also included a joint performance with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra of Gottschalk’s A Night in the Tropics, and performances by two of its string quartets on WFMT radio.
The EYSO celebrated its thirtieth season in 2006, with premieres of newly commissioned works, an alumni reunion and gala concert, and new initiatives strengthening its educational mission. A Chamber Music Institute was founded and a Parent Council formed to complement the EYSO’s strong Board of Directors. In May, the Youth Symphony was featured on NPR’s “From the Top” radio show, and in August made its first overseas tour, performing in Scotland at the invitation of the Aberdeen International Youth Festival, where the Youth Symphony was a notable feature of the festival, performing music of Copland, Gershwin, Higdon, and other Americans to great acclaim.
The 2007 season was another exciting one, with a second “Youth Orchestra of the Year” award from the ICO, and a performance by Youth Symphony members with Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble in Symphony Center. A special concert and weekend conference exploring the art of video game music attracted young musicians and gamers from around Chicago and northern Illinois, as well as an appearance by Michael Salvatori, composer for Halo. The EYSO continued to grow with the addition of Primo Orchestra and its first conductor, Gwen Armwood, as well as new Philharmonia conductor David Anderson, and percussion coach Ted Atkatz, former principal percussionist of the Chicago Symphony.
The 2007-08 season was another year of “firsts”: a collaboration with Metropolitan Opera soprano Kitt Foss in Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony No. 1 and with Ted Atkatz’s band NYCO, premiering a program of newly commissioned arrangements of NYCO originals at the ECC Arts Center and the beautiful Park West in Chicago; Artistic Director Randal Swiggum named “Conductor of the Year” by the Illinois Council of Orchestras, and the EYSO introduced two honors chamber groups, the Maud Powell String Quartet and the Sterling Brass Quintet.
In 2008-09, the EYSO continued to expand its artistic vision in pathbreaking ways, building its season, “Americans We,” on music of the Americas. The March concert commemorated the Lincoln Bicentennial in a moving performance featuring Lincoln’s own words and stirring visuals, following a “Lincoln Tour” to Springfield by the Youth Symphony which included a high profile performance in the state capitol. An early highlight of this lavish season was a weeklong collaboration with international violin superstar Midori, who performed three different concertos with Prelude Orchestra, Philharmonia, and the Youth Symphony to a sold-out audience in the Hemmens Theatre in Elgin. In May 2009, Daniel Beder was hired as new Prelude Orchestra conductor and Beth Wood assumed the position as Primo Orchestra conductor.
During the 2009-10 season, the EYSO explored connections between music and architecture, beginning with a Fall Camp architectural theme and a day at Mies van der Roh’s stunning Farnsworth House, in Plano. The Maud Powell Quartet performed in Calatrava’s breathtaking Windhover Hall of the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Youth Symphony collaborated with the Elgin Choral Union in their Proper English Christmas concert in December, and the Brahms Requiem in March. The Youth Symphony also performed two sold-out concerts with Michael Ingersoll and the Jersey Boys. The Chamber Music Institute (CMI) boasted 23 chamber music ensembles and students auditioned in record numbers for the EYSO. The season came to a fitting close with magnificent performances at the Gridley Frank Lloyd Wright house by the Maud Powell String Quartet and Sterling Brass Quintet.
In 2010-11, the EYSO celebrated its 35th anniversary with the theme “It’s About Time!”, including many commemorative events and a focus both on the history of the EYSO and how music is a "time-art." The Youth Symphony again performed a series of sold-out concerts with Michael Ingersoll and the Jersey Boys in November. In March, former conductor Daniel Boico (and current Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic) returned to guest conduct the Philharmonia and Youth Symphony. The season was also marked by several firsts: Sinfonia, conducted by Daniel Beder, debuted as a string orchestra in the fall and as a full orchestra in January. The Hanson String Quartet, named after EAYO founder Robert Hanson, debuted as the third Honors Chamber Group. And EAYO-EYSO alumni gathered for a holiday reunion at the Elgin Public House in downtown Elgin. As a grand season finale, the May gala concert “Only in Elgin” celebrated not only the EYSO’s anniversary by welcoming alumni to perform “The Turtle Dove”, but also celebrated the rich history of the Elgin community itself.
“Arts and Minds” was the theme of the 2011-12 season. The EYSO explored the relationship of music with visual art, language, and movement. For the third time, the Youth Symphony performed sold-out concerts with Michael Ingersoll and “Under the Streetlamp.” In January, the EYSO staff collaborated on its first Faculty Recital, a fund-raiser for student scholarships. In March, the Youth Symphony embarked on an innovative “Civil War Tour” including Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, Appomattox, Manassas, Washington D.C., and Gettysburg. The Youth Symphony season finale included Petroushka and a collaboration with the Northwest Ballet Ensemble in a new work titled “The Seven Movements of Dance.” In July, the Youth Symphony performed Beethoven Lives Upstairs at the invitation of the Ravinia Festival, with Maestro George Stelluto conducting.
Increasingly, the EYSO continues to attract a national reputation for providing rich and deep musical experiences for an ever-widening circle of young musicians, who are drawn to its high musical standards, a lively music-making environment which promotes collaboration and eschews competition, and a thoughtful, comprehensive curriculum that focuses on all aspects of music-making including listening, evaluating, critical thinking, describing, and probing the history, cultural context, and meaning of the musical masterworks studied and performed.