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In Their Words: A Community Like No Other

by DiDi Turley

Die-hard patrons of the Cincinnati classical music scene might recognize the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra (CSYO) from their annual Side-by-Side concert with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. If you aren’t familiar with the CSYO, however, here’s what you need to know: The Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra comprises two orchestras—the Philharmonic Orchestra and the Concert Orchestra—and features more than 200 of the region’s most talented young musicians, ranging from grades 8 through 12. These students are selected through a competitive audition process and are truly the best young instrumentalists in the area. Beyond the musical training that they receive—which is top-tier, since members enjoy access to CSO musicians through rehearsals and one-on-one sessions—students gain a sense of community like no other.

Keep reading to meet a few members of the 2023–24 Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra:

Jonathan Kaseff
CSYO percussionist Jonathan Kaseff. Credit: Mark Lyons

Connor Perkins is a high school sophomore about to experience his first year as a member of the CSYO. Connor has been playing the trombone for five years. According to him, the hard work of the older members of his school’s orchestra is what sparked inspiration for him to push himself further.

“I’ve had a lot of [classmates] ahead of me that have been very, very good. [I knew that] I wanted to reach that level at some point.”

And so, he began preparing for his first CSYO audition.

“Come day of the audition, I walk in and it’s—I don’t know—I was really nervous, but at the same time, I was confident. I feel like, if you’re stressed, you’re not as good in the audition. As I walked in, it just kind of hit me, like, ‘I’m really doing this. I’m really trying out.’”

For others, this past audition cycle was far from their first foray into the CSYO audition room. Jonathan Kaseff, a high school senior and percussionist, is about to kick off his fifth year in the ensemble.

Says Jonathan, “I had always loved going to CSO concerts as a little kid with my grandma, and I was fascinated by the Orchestra and the sounds they made, so when I found out about the CSYO program, I was like, this is my [opportunity] to play orchestral music, and I haven’t looked back since.”

Jonathan started playing percussion as a kid, joining a mallet ensemble at an early age. When it came time for him to pick an instrument in school, percussion was an easy choice. Now with years of experience, he says that auditioning for the CSYO each year has become significantly less daunting.

“It’s a mixture of nervousness and excitement because I’ll have this super nervous [feeling of] ‘let’s do this.’ I forget who said it, but if you go [into the audition room] stressed, you’re not doing yourself any good.”

Laine Stautberg
CSYO violist Lainie Stautberg, far right (blonde hair). Credit: Mark Lyons

Lainie Stautberg has been playing the viola for “eight-ish” years, but this is only her second year playing with the CSYO. Starting her youth orchestra career in the Northern Kentucky University Youth Orchestra, Lainie decided to join the CSYO because of the opportunity to play with more people and more instruments. Although she started as a violinist, she found herself drawn to the viola for a few key reasons:

“I [played violin] for about two years, and then I got sick of that E-string—you know? Like, it was just giving me headaches, and I needed to go lower. I didn’t want to play something that was completely different, though, so the viola was the perfect option for me. I started playing in my school’s orchestra, and it just took off from there.”

Students in the CSYO come from different schools across the region, and the program has become a crucial part of its members’ social circles and professional networks. Many, like Connor, were recruited by friends who were already in the ensemble. Others joined for the experience and subsequently discovered a community of musicians they could lean on and grow with. According to Lainie, “You do form really strong bonds with people there. It’s a very supportive environment.”

For high school junior Simon Huth, who plays the oboe, these connections are a natural part of the CSYO experience.

Says Simon, “I think it’s really easy to form connections in this group because we’re all there for the same reason, which is to play music.”

As elite young musicians, members of the orchestra recognize that they’re playing alongside individuals who could be their colleagues throughout their careers. That level of connection is especially important to Jonathan, who says, “I’m playing with my friends, who are also my colleagues, my musicians, my mentors. I think that’s a really special environment to be a part of.”

The supportive environment of the ensemble goes beyond the students who make up the orchestra, though. Musicians in the CSYO work closely with conductors and members of the CSO to sharpen their skills each week. These professional musicians take the roles of mentor and educator seriously, and the students are clearly able to pick up on the dedication to a growth-oriented rehearsal space.

Says Lainie, “It feels very professional but without all the high stakes. The conductor is very much by our side, willing to guide us through whatever we need.”

Jonathan and Simon agree that the leadership of the conductors is unmatched, with Jonathan saying, “They treat you like [professional] musicians. They expect you to come in and do the work and learn your music, but the conductors are always by your side, always willing to help, talk to you, assist you in any possible way.”

To Simon, this attitude helps him to grow as a musician and make mistakes in a productive way.

“Like, it’s okay for you to make mistakes in your playing. In the rehearsal process, the conductor is a very cool, very nice guy. He does a very good job of teaching the music and connecting everybody to the piece.”

Simon Huth
CSYO oboist Simon Huth (bottom left) with members of the Concert Orchestra.

Beyond the mentorship and musical training, members of the CSYO are given a rare opportunity: In their annual Side-by-Side concert with the CSO, they’re able to play on stage in Cincinnati’s historic Music Hall, right alongside CSO musicians. It seems to be unanimous among these young musicians that this is the crowning moment of each CSYO season.

“I think that at that moment [when you] step out onto the stage, you feel so accomplished because this is, like, it’s the biggest stage in the area and all of these phenomenal musicians perform on it,” says Lainie. “It’s just kind of a moment of ‘wow, I did this.’”

For Jonathan, stepping onto that stage has been a life-long dream turned into reality.

“Playing with the CSO is just—it was my dream when I was a little kid to get to play with them on that stage, and so that’s definitely the highlight of the season.”

When asked if their experiences in the CSYO have influenced their decisions about pursuing music beyond high school, they all seemed to agree that music will be a mainstay in their lives for the foreseeable future and that the CSYO has had a large part in that.

Says Connor, “I feel like there are very few groups that are all so [connected]. [We] don’t know each other that much but are still connected through music. That environment, in general, is very special to me.”

Lainie, who is still a few years away from applying to colleges, knows that she wants a career in music, and she’s open to whatever form that may take.

“I hope to make a profession out of it, wherever that brings me. I want to try a little bit of everything. I’m interested in maybe [playing in a] Broadway pit orchestra, or even being in a symphony.”

Similarly, Simon isn’t sure what role music will play in his college career. However, having started playing piano in elementary school, “it’s definitely been a long time that [he’s] been reading music and making noises,” so he isn’t likely to stop any time soon.

Jonathan is all-in on making music his career, having recently embarked on his first wave of college visits. He says that music has been a constant in his life so far, and he’s planning on majoring in percussion performance once he gets to college. From there, he’s hoping to work professionally as a percussionist.

“The end goal is to be in a symphony orchestra, but if I end up being in a pit orchestra for an opera, that would be totally fine with me,” says Jonathan. “Since I was a tiny baby, music has always been there for me. It’s always been an escape and it’s something that I enjoy doing above everything. It’s definitely something I would love to keep doing for as long as I live.”

The CSYO Philharmonic Orchestra’s first concert of the season, “Childhood Memories,” will take place on December 3 at Music Hall and features the orchestral wonder of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. The Concert Orchestra’s first concert of the season, “Across the Stars,” will take place on December 10 in Corbett Auditorium at CCM. The program will include Gustav Holst’s The Planets, John Williams’ Epic Star Wars Suite, and other star-oriented pieces.