Robbie Short

The first thing John Mauceri ’67 does when we meet is pull out his phone to show me a picture he just took with President Peter Salovey. With a huge smile, he boasts, “Look who I just got a photo with. I gotta tweet this later.”

This is John Mauceri, whose achievements include conducting for some of the most renowned orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and the London Symphony, as well as storied opera companies such as the Metropolitan Opera. He’s received a Tony, a Grammy, and three Emmy awards. Mauceri is one of the most recognized American conductors in the world — and he is also beloved here at Yale as the founder of the Yale Symphony Orchestra (YSO).

Mauceri is in town this week to help celebrate YSO’s 50th anniversary. He will be the guest conductor for YSO’s Alumni Weekend concert this Saturday evening, which will bring back a little over a hundred alumni. This marks YSO’s biggest alumni reunion yet.

As we sit down to talk about his memories of YSO, Mauceri leans back into his leather chair. With a deep breath as if to prepare himself, he launches into his stories about the orchestra with clear excitement, recalling his memories in vivid detail. Every so often, he becomes so engrossed in his own anecdotes that his sentences are punctuated by chuckles.

Even after these fifty years, it’s clear that YSO matters to Mauceri as much as any of the philharmonic orchestras he’s conducted for. “The Yale Symphony is like my child,” he says.“And coming back after all these years to conduct, it just felt exactly the same. It felt normal, and that nothing’s changed.”

Making Enemies with the Fire Marshal

YSO first began as the Calhoun Chamber Orchestra in 1965. By 1967, it had become known as the Yale Symphony Orchestra and was led by Richmond Browne, a faculty member at Yale. When Browne soon left for a teaching position in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the students of the orchestra asked Mauceri — who had guest conducted for them before — to take over as their music director. A first year graduate student at the Yale School of Music, Mauceri started his new position in the autumn of 1968.

YSO was a sad sight in the beginning. “It used to perform at Sprague Hall to nobody. It had an audience of maybe 120 people,” Mauceri noted. He recalled walking around campus listening for students practicing their instruments, and if they sounded good, he would run up to their dorm, knock on their doors, and ask if they’d like to play for the orchestra. “Today, it is not like that,” he said with a wry smile.

After a disappointing first show, Mauceri started to imagine an imaginary orchestra that would one day play in Woolsey Hall. Working backward, he began to wonder: How could he build YSO into a more recognizable entity on campus? First, Mauceri realized that YSO’s repertoire was key. New Haven was a small city, but there were numerous orchestras performing every year. Mauceri knew that YSO would have to distinguish itself in order to gain an audience.

“I never liked to compete with what already existed. I’d rather complete what doesn’t exist,” he explained. “So I looked at what the repertoire was of the other orchestras, and what wasn’t being played.” Mauceri eventually decided that YSO would be “trendy and hip — in a classical music sense, of course” and would focus on playing the “most cutting edge music of living composers.”

One of the biggest performances that YSO did in those years was Stockhausen’s “Hymnem” or “Anthems,” an electronic piece about the anthems of all the countries in the world, with an orchestral part. Speakers were placed around Cross Campus, and the orchestra itself sat outside of the Beinecke Library. Over a thousand performers — dancers, actors and so on — accompanied the piece, and flags were projected onto the television-like screens on the Beinecke’s marble facade. To top it all off (literally), the Yale Aviation Squad flew over the library during a section of the piece that sounded like airplanes. President Kingman Brewster himself flew in one of these planes because he wanted to be involved in the performance.

After a pause, Mauceri admitted, “So I guess I am kind of a crazy person.” An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 people came to watch the performance.

YSO soon gained a sizable presence on campus, thanks to Mauceri’s ingenuity. “Aside from the Yale Football team and the football games, YSO was the thing to do,” Bob Perkel ’72 said. “Every concert was a sellout, and people would crowd into Woolsey Hall and fill all the spaces. There would be people standing in the audience!” Perkel remembers the fire marshal being their biggest enemy, as they always came to the shows to kick people out due to overcrowding.

And of course, YSO attained international fame when Leonard Bernstein — one of the first American conductors to receive international acclaim — invited the orchestra to play his work “MASS” in Vienna, for what would be the piece’s European premiere. Daniel Feller ’74 fondly recalled rehearsals for the piece. Feller was first cello in the orchestra, and also played guitar, which gave him a unique position in the piece because it had both a guitar and cello solo. While practicing the difficult solo on stage, Feller remembers looking up at the second balcony of Woolsey Hall, and seeing Leonard Bernstein looking right back at him. YSO’s performance of “MASS” would be televised worldwide, and Feller remembers the performance as a moment that changed his life.

“YSO in general, was everything. And it still holds a special place in my heart,” Feller said.

Making Classical Music Hip & Trendy

“YSO is everything to me,” Ken Yanagisawa ’16 said, echoing Feller’s words.

Sitting in the reporting room of the Yale Daily News office, Yanagisawa gushes about his love for the orchestra. Today, YSO is known as one of, if not the, best undergraduate non-conservatory orchestras in the country. “The whole concept of ‘Why Yale?’ — my answer would just be YSO,” Yanagisawa said. “And it’s fair to say that almost every member of YSO knew about it before even applying to Yale, and it’s a very big part of our lives.”

Other students in YSO whom I talked to shared similar sentiments.. Many of them had been choosing between attending a music conservatory or a liberal arts college, and ultimately decided to attend Yale because YSO offered them the perfect balance of musical opportunity and academic rigor.

Overwhelmingly, everyone I spoke with named YSO’s culture and community as essential to the special bond among its members. The orchestra is entirely comprised of volunteers; the student musicians do not get paid or receive course credit for their involvement, which can stretch from five to nine hours a week. Therefore, those who stay with YSO are students who truly feel passionate about music.

Such a deep shared interest inevitably gives rise to strong friendships. “It seems like you’re going to orchestra rehearsal and you’re not really talking to people, so it’s surprising to realize that so many relationships develop out of just sitting next to someone, being someone’s stand partner,” Jennifer Gersten ’16 said.  “At the end of this year, I found that my stand partner and I were wearing matching shirts more often than we were not. We ended up documenting this one day — we were both wearing green. We were basically just becoming one person. Just playing music that you both appreciate is enough common ground to feel like you really get somebody.”

Moreover, many students credited Maestro Toshiyuki Shimada (endearingly referred to as Toshi), as instrumental to cultivating community within YSO. Jacob Sweet ’18 explained how Toshi’s inviting personality constituted a huge reason why Sweet fell in love with YSO prior to attending Yale.

“When I visited as a prefrosh, Toshi — instead of just letting me listen to the rehearsal — sat with me in the audience and took the time to talk to me about the orchestra, what I was interested in, and so on,” Sweet recalled. “He even brought me on stage and let me sit in the clarinet section while they were rehearsing. I pretty much knew from that point on that I really wanted to go to Yale.”

Coincidentally, this is also Toshi’s tenth anniversary conducting for YSO. When asked about his experience thus far with the symphony, he responded, “It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve done.” After a pause, he added, “It’s like driving a Ferrari. With a turbo booster on it sometimes. And I’m always saying: ‘Stop! Don’t go so fast!’ It’s exciting and thrilling. That’s why I REALLY like this job.” In particular, Toshi emphasized the group’s tremendous amount of spirit and energy, which, according to him, doesn’t exist in some professional groups.

YSO defies the traditional perception of classical music as a “stodgy, dusty art only enjoyed by old people,” as Gersten puts it. And one of the best examples of this is the orchestra’s annual Halloween show. Consistently the most popular YSO concert of the season, the Halloween show never fails to attract a full house. This year, tickets sold out in one and a half minutes. “Over half of the music that we play for the Halloween show actually isn’t pop music,” Yanagisawa explained. “We’ll pick out sections and snippets of music from pieces we’ll be playing throughout the season, and piece it together. Then, we’ll weave some Taylor Swift in there, and that’s how we get the Halloween show. So a lot of the music that we play in the Halloween show is already classical music — it’s just a matter of engaging the audience in a different way.”

And YSO’s reputation on campus seems to defy the stereotype of being musical nerds. Jeremy Tamlico ’19, a self-proclaimed YSO fan, admires that about the orchestra.

“YSO seems to be the reversal of what you’d expect an orchestra to be,” Tamlico said. “They’re not unpopular nerds, but actual sensations. Their shows are always highly anticipated, and they do a great job raising appreciation of classical music for the Yale community. They make classical music cool, and that’s not an easy thing to do.”

What Do 50 Years Mean?

The message behind YSO’s 50th Anniversary is encapsulated in their upcoming Alumni Weekend event: the joining of past, present, and future. And what links all of it together is continuity. “The continuity of human expression, which is what music is anyway,” Mauceri states wistfully.

And, given the stories of YSO alumni and current students alike, Mauceri’s words ring true. Alumni like Feller and Perkel, for whom YSO has created an unforgettable chapter of music in their lives, are echoed in their love for music by students who play in YSO today, fifty years later. One of Gersten’s favorite experiences of YSO, for instance, was performing Mahler’s “Symphony No. 6,” which she described as revelatory.

“It was like something transcending you, something that became more than yourself,” Gersten recalled. “At one point in the piece, I looked over at the principal cellist’s eyes and saw that [they] were red, and I just lost it.” This emotion and passion for music is something that has continuously characterized YSO for the past fifty years.

But perhaps more importantly, YSO’s 50th anniversary celebrates what’s to come in the future. What will happen 50 years from now? One of the sacred vows that newly inducted members of YSO make on tap night is: “Do you promise to spread the glory of the YSO to all corners of this campus?” And for many, YSO’s 50th anniversary is about both confirming this vow and extending it.

“This is our moment to say, ‘no, it’s not our campus. It’s the country. It’s the world,’” Yanagisawa said. “And perhaps more importantly, this is our moment to bring back alumni and celebrate them for making YSO what it is today, and for leaving this legacy for us.”