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Sunday, May 26, 2002

And with a wave of his wand . . .

Youth orchestra founder looks forward to another year of magic

Staff writer

As cofounder and artistic director of the Asian Youth Orchestra, Richard Pontzious says one of his greatest delights is providing talented youngsters with an experience that might become the most significant musical memory of their lives.

Founded by Pontzious and Yehudi Menuhin in 1987, the AYO each year since 1990 has taken more than 100 young people between the ages of 15 and 25 on an intensive six-week musical journey, including a three-week rehearsal camp at the AYO headquarters in Hong Kong and a three-week tour of Asian (and sometimes European) countries. This year they will visit four: Japan, Taiwan, China and Hong Kong.

As a music teacher/conductor working in Japan, China and Taiwan, Pontzious says he saw many talented Asian students go West to study and then take positions with orchestras in Europe and the United States. He says he decided to establish the AYO to foster a sense of pride for what can be achieved by Asian musicians in Asia, and therefore help stem the drain of talent.

For the upcoming program, Pontzious, together with AYO manager Keith Lau, spent February and March touring 17 cities in 12 countries, including Japan, Hong Kong and China, auditioning more than 1,200 students. They chose 104, 26 of whom are from Japan.

While giving all those who auditioned full credit for their effort and courage, Pontzious says it is always a joy to discover exceptionally talented players. "You have one that can hardly play," he says. "Then the next one plays so beautifully and magically -- and you think, 'How did this one get in here?' "

This year's program will have special resonance for Pontzious, as for the first time he will hold the baton as conductor. After eight years as AYO music director/conductor, Sergiu Comissiona stepped down last year -- and recommended Pontzious take his place.

Although Pontzious has acted as conductor at a few AYO concerts and for other orchestras, he says his new role will be an "enormous and great challenge." However, he is not one to give up. "I've asked the students to believe in themselves," he says. "I'll do the same thing."

Each year, AYO participants get the opportunity to learn from and perform alongside some of the most renowned musicians in the world, including cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Julian Lloyd Webber and violinists Akiko Suwanai and Gidon Kremer. This year's guest performer will be pianist Robert Taub.

But, Pontzious says, more than the thrill of sharing the stage with such high-caliber musicians, the students are most profoundly affected by their experiences with each other.

"What they remember are the friendships they've made with other Asians," he says with a smile. "That's what they take home."

The Asian Youth Orchestra will tour Japan in August, holding seven concerts in Kyoto, Osaka, Ayase (where students will take part in a homestay program), Tokyo, Aomori and Sapporo. The Japan Times is the official media sponsor of the tour. For more information, call (03) 5472-3072 or see the Web site at http://www.asianyouthorchestra.com/

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