It's no wonder that many of the 7,000 young musicians who started their performance careers with the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Vilem Sokol, are returning for the privilege of playing once again with him.
Sokol, a beloved community figure who hasn't conducted the Youth Symphony since he stepped down in 1988, will return as one of the conductors of a special board benefit concert next Sunday at Meany Theater, starting at 3 p.m.
For weeks now, however, he has been worrying about squeezing onto the Meany stage all the players who want to play, including Youth Symphony alumni who have dispersed to professional orchestras in Europe, the Far East and throughout North America.
"Originally, there were 152," says Sokol, still lean and energetic at 81. "But just last week, another 70 applications came in from alumni who want to play. It's not possible to get them all onto the stage; we'll have to alternate, with some playing in one work and some playing in another."
They're coming from New York and from Hawaii to show their appreciation for Sokol, a nationally esteemed maestro who headed the Youth Symphony for 28 years, and who also taught at the University of Washington from 1948 until his retirement in 1985.
Sokol is "Bill" to his friends, "Dad" to his 10 children and "Mr. Sokol" to generations of music students, who still send him heart-warming letters, photos, cards, cartoons and the occasional
concert announcement. Fabled for his memory during the Youth Symphony days, when he always learned the name of every player in an orchestra that changed every year, Sokol still has an amazing recall of those names and faces.
"How many marriages eventually took place between members of the Youth Symphony?" Sokol muses.
"Now that I couldn't possibly tell you! But there were many, often between players who sat next to each other. John DeJarnatt (today the second oboe of the Seattle Symphony), for instance, married another member of the oboe section: Jane Bovee, that was her name." It doesn't matter that the DeJarnatts met in the orchestra during the early 1960s; Sokol remembers them well.
What is it like, getting up in front of a big group of fresh faces after nine years away?
"Well, they look very young!" Sokol quips.
"Actually, that's not just my view from an older perspective. The average age really is much younger since the days when I conducted the Youth Symphony, and local college or university players would stay throughout their college years.
"I'm very grateful Jonathan (Shames, the current Youth Symphony music director) asked me to conduct. It puts me in touch with another generation, and I feel a tremendous affinity for them as members of the Youth Symphony. We were strangers, but after we make music together, we no longer are strangers."
Of course, Sokol couldn't help telling a few anecdotes at the first rehearsal; his jokes are part of the legend. In the old days, there weren't nearly as many girls in the orchestra, Sokol observed, and then he told one of his stories about the late English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, a notorious sexist.
" `There are no women in my orchestra,' Sir Thomas once said.
" `If they're attractive, it will distract my men. If they're not attractive, it will distract me.' "
That story is one example of how times have changed, Sokol said, and another is the emergence of new generations of Asian-American musical talent.
"Can you believe that back in the early 1960s, there was not one Asian name on our personnel list?," Sokol says.
"Today, Asian Americans are a major part of the orchestra, due partly to the great value placed on music and discipline in so many Asian-American homes. Today, we have students of the son of our first Asian-American player in the orchestra."
Much contemporary research has been devoted to the effects of music on raising the IQ, improving the spatial and cognitive ability, and enhancing the academic performance of students. Sokol knew this all along.
"This is no surprise," he says of the research.
"I've seen it firsthand so many times, not only in my own family but also in students."
He still has some students on both viola and violin, though Sokol has cut back on the teaching because "it's hard to find the time." And he has lost none of the intensity that made him such a remarkable teaching conductor over the years.
"Look at this score," he says, brandishing a copy of Bernstein's Overture to "West Side Story," which he will conduct next Sunday. He flips through some pages and points.
"It's rhythmically tricky, and right here is one of the tough parts. In rehearsal, I have the kids clap out the rhythm until they get it right - and then they clap it 10 more times. That way it becomes instinctive, in their bodies."
The key to relating to young musicians, Sokol says, is respect - respect and love.
"It all starts with love," Sokol says.
"When I stand up before the Youth Symphony, I feel the most enormous outpouring of love. It is such a sacrifice for them, getting up every Saturday morning to rehearse. They've come from Wenatchee, from Bellingham, Olympia, and I even had kids from Aberdeen - the Adams girls, as I remember. They are so eager to learn and the music delights them so much.
"The conductor is richly rewarded." ----------------------------------------------------------------- Board benefit concert
The Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra and its three training orchestras - along with adult alumni of the orchestras from New York to Hawaii - will be heard in a board benefit concert at 3 p.m. April 6 in Meany Theater. Conductor emeritus Vilem Sokol will lead Bernstein's "West Side Story" Overture and Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos, featuring current Youth Symphony music director Jonathan Shames and his wife, Stephanie Leon Shames, as piano soloists. Jonathan Shames also will conduct Beethoven's "Egmont" Orchestra and Ravel's "Bolero," and the Youth Symphony conducting staff will take turns leading what is described as "a parade of musical selections": Javier Casademunt, Walter Cole, Anna Edwards Garvue and Christopher Harshman. Tickets are $25-$35; a $150 ticket also provides dinner following the concert, at the Stimson Green Mansion (362-2300).