For four years, violinist Kevin Gordon has traveled on Monday nights throughout the school year from his home in Itasca to Naperville to rehearse with the Youth Symphony of DuPage.
Now 17, he doesn't begrudge the time.
"I think it's the greatest group I've ever been a part of," says Gordon, who wants to minor in violin in college.
For the past 50 years, Youth Symphony of DuPage has been challenging musicians such as Gordon with music they might not ordinarily have the opportunity to play.
Music director Meng-Kong Tham, who has led the symphony for 37 of those years, admits he's strict with his charges.
"We have so little time to learn so much music. Pay attention," Tham demands at a recent rehearsal for the symphony's Stellar Gala VII concert at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 9, at North Central College's Wentz Concert Hall, 171 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville.
Wanting to make the occasion particularly festive for the symphony's 50th anniversary year, Tham has included "Mankind" from Tan Dun's Symphony 1997, written for the reunification of Hong Kong and China after 150 years.
The young musicians respond to Tham's admonishments.
"I think he's a really effective conductor and he really cares about us," Gordon says. "I like when he shows so much dedication."
The dedication is mutual. Tham recalls with pride when symphony members came out in a snowstorm to make a rehearsal. He himself commutes on Monday nights from his home on the North Side of Chicago to Naperville, a trip that can take him two to three hours during evening rush hour.
"The minute I start rehearsing with them, you forget all that," says Tham, retired from teaching music for 30 years at DePaul University. "I always find myself feeding on their energy."
The Youth Symphony of DuPage was founded in 1963 as the Wheaton Youth Symphony by Hazel Wunsch and Harold Best of the Wheaton College Conservatory to give advanced young musicians broader and more challenging learning and performing experience.
Thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers and young people serious about music, it's stuck with that mission ever since. Some of the students are children of former Youth Symphony members.
"I think it's the best value in the area of getting a music education at not a huge price," says symphony board secretary and former president Jo Ann Foss.
A former music teacher and choir director at several area school districts, Foss says her own two children played in the Youth Symphony, and her son is now a professional musician with Lyric Opera of Chicago.
"Almost always they have tremendously good concerts. I think that makes them proud of what they do," she says.
Playing with a symphony orchestra is an experience that Foss and many of the parent volunteers didn't have as young people. Tham says that experience was also unavailable to him when he was growing up in Malaysia.
"This is such a wonderful opportunity for hundreds of kids to play music of Mozart and Beethoven. It's almost like seeing myself do that," he says. "I love to see children get involved with classical music. That kind of music requires the discipline and commitment in order to keep up with it."
The symphony includes about 150 members in fifth grade through high school, divided between the Concert Orchestra for younger and less experienced players and the Symphony Orchestra for advanced students.
The Symphony Orchestra will be presenting the March 9 concert together with Anima -- Young Singers of Greater Chicago. Guest performers also will include Edward Kocher on trombone and cellist Jessica Ondracek, an alumnae of the Youth Symphony who is majoring in music in college.
All Youth Symphony members audition to be in the group, even those retuning for another year. Tham says the next auditions probably will be held during the last week of March and early April. The young musicians rehearse Monday nights, September to May, and present three concerts a year -- in December, March and the concluding concert in May.
A not-for-profit, the Youth Symphony is funded by grants, private and business donations, and tuition fees. The Concert Orchestra members pay $350 a year to belong, and the Symphony Orchestra members $400, including a nonrefundable $100 deposit. Tham is the only paid staff member.
Love of music
Until two years ago, Tham conducted both the Concert and Symphony orchestras. When he asked Kimberlie Richter, a volunteer and board member with the Youth Symphony for 25 years, to become assistant conductor to lead the Concert Orchestra, she was thrilled, she says.
An adjunct professor of music at North Central College, private bassoon instructor and mother of two Youth Symphony alumni, Richter says her methods of conducting are different than Tham's, but their mission is the same.
"I believe in his vision and his teaching method. He truly cares about the kids," she says. "It's not about ego. It's all about where these kids are and what they can do and how far can we push them."
Tham, who spent 12 years as the assistant conductor of the Civic Orchestra, a training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony, says he pours all he has learned into the kids. He also brings his experience of serving as director of world music during the last 10 years he spent at DePaul University.
His choice of repertoire is a balancing act of selecting pieces that set high expectations for students but also recognize when they've gone as far as they can go, he says.
He recalls when he had them learn a piece from "Hansel and Gretel."
"At one time I didn't think we'd be able to do it. When it happened, that is the best feeling," he says.
Some of the students go on to win international prizes and play professionally, but Tham says that is not the goal.
"We are not here to train them to become musicians. We are here to expose them to good music, classical music, which is one of the greatest cultural assets of the Western world," he says.
The students welcome the challenges. Kendra Standish, a 14-year-old cellist from Aurora, has been in the Youth Symphony for four years and hopes to have music become part of her career.
"It's just fun to play with others to make music. I do it because I love it," she says. "Music is my passion."
Scott Mitchell, president of the Youth Symphony board, says his daughter played with the symphony during her senior year in high school and is now majoring in percussion at Indiana University. For students who do want to go on in music, the Youth Symphony is a great starting point, he says.
"We have very talented kids," he says. "I think it's a great experience."
For more information on the Youth Symphony of DuPage, see www.ysdp.org.