SAN ANTONIO — Sixto Elizondo is just a few days away from taking the Tobin Center stage to play one of the most challenging pieces of music he’s ever had to learn. But you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at him.
Having grown up in a household where music was central – his dad is an orchestra director, his mom a music teacher – it was likely only a matter of time before Sixto committed to an instrument. It ended up being the double bass, whose warm sound the 17-year-old Churchill High junior first gravitated to in the fifth grade.
“It’ll be my first time playing my bass on that stage,” Sixto now says, six years later. “It’s going to be great. We’re playing an amazing repertoire, and having a good time putting it all together.”
Speaking to KENS 5 over Zoom Wednesday afternoon, Elizondo was describing his early experiences as a new member of Youth Orchestras of San Antonio – or YOSA – as the organization tunes up another season of putting young musicians in a bigger spotlight than they’ve ever experienced.
But it isn’t like any regular year for the organization, which for more than 60 years has taken local 8-to-20-year-old musicians across the country and the world. YOSA this year is welcoming its biggest-ever class of new performers—more than 200 total, amounting to a 47% enrollment increase over last year. In addition to getting bigger, it’s getting more diverse: Of this season’s new members, more than half are kids of color.
In all, this season will see about 500 musicians performing across the organization’s nine different ensembles, including the Philharmonic, which Sixto is part of.
“More than anything else it’s a place to collaborate with other people who share the same passion as you,” he said. “Getting more people involved creates a bigger and better community. It is a very tight group of people.”
YOSA leadership chalk the enrollment surge up to refocused outreach efforts that began around this time last year, when COVID-19 vaccines were starting to be widely available to kids and the road out of the pandemic was a bit clearer. The team is visiting schools they haven’t historically been to, welcoming along YOSA alumni who have aged out but can speak firsthand about their experiences.
“It’s just a whole community of people rowing in the same direction and really, really good results,” said YOSA Executive Director Jerrod Price.
This year’s historic class isn’t merely a result of YOSA opening its arms to anyone who’s interested; those hoping to audition for one of its nine ensembles are expected to have some experience under their belt. At the same time, YOSA’s ranks have grown fourfold since 2010, mirroring Bexar County’s overall population explosion.
And if the surplus of talent is there, YOSA leadership says it’s going to find a way to harmonize with that growth.
“The goal is to offer a placement to every qualified and interested student,” says Troy Peters, YOSA’s music director for 13 years and counting.
Planning for the future
With steadily growing ensembles and some musicians driving as much as an hour to get to weekly rehearsals comes new challenges for YOSA.
At the top of the list: finding a dedicated rehearsal space. Right now, performers trek out to any of three spots around San Antonio, preventing interaction between younger members and more seasoned YOSA musicians.
“Having a home base provides a great deal for us, in addition to some logistical relief for families and students,” Price said, adding that they’re searching for a space similar to the H-E-B Performance Hall.
YOSA’s record-enrollment numbers, meanwhile, bodes well for a city whose reputation as an arts-friendly community took a blow with the dissolving of the San Antonio Symphony in June. Those professional musicians have since reorganized into the San Antonio Philharmonic, and while Peters says the city’s music-education foundations remain strong, he also concedes the summer's development's constituted "a tough blow for our older kids, especially.”
Just as important for Peters and Price as growing YOSA’s ranks is targeting students young enough that they’ll want to continue beyond the end of their first season. To that end, while most of the new members are middle- and high-schoolers, they’ve specifically been targeting middle school-age musicians, while also creating paths into YOSA for kids all over the city.
“When I walked into YOSA for the first time 13 years ago, it was like, ‘This is one of the most diverse youth orchestras I’ve ever seen,’” Peters said. “Since then, we’ve gotten even more representative of what the City of San Antonio looks like. We want to make sure kids from every neighborhood feel welcome.
What’s on tap for 2022-2023, and beyond
Artistic collaboration is prevalent throughout San Antonio, and Sunday’s season-kickoff concert showcases how.
YOSA is partnering with the Briscoe Western Art Museum for “Frontiers,” a showcase of grand Wild West-inspired music – anchored by Aaron Copland’s 1938 ballet “Billy the Kid” – performed against the backdrop of projected artwork on display at the Briscoe, just a few blocks away. YOSA will be joined by visiting flutist Mimi Stillman for the concert.
“You’ll hear this great, exciting music, and you’ll also see this absolutely breathtaking art,” Peters said. “It’s music that’s about different kinds of American frontiers, different kinds of ways that cultures are interacting.”
Also on the docket for this season: A collaboration with a renowned electric violinist Peters likens to a cross between Yo-Yo Ma and Hendrix; a May 2023 concert celebrating the overcoming of a global pandemic through an uplifting selection of music; and the annual springtime invitational that gives school bands from all across the region an opportunity to play in the Tobin Center for themselves.
You can find the full season schedule here. Tickets for most events start at $18.
Sixto, meanwhile, is set to make every moment of his YOSA experience worth it. The way he puts it, it already has been.
If things pan out like he wants them to, he’ll continue to grow his passion, while sharing it with others.
“I would love to be a music educator, as well as a performer like my dad,” he said. “I would just love to be able to continue playing with good ensembles, play the music I’ve come to love.”