Civic Orchestra of Los Angeles: A new home for young talent pursuing a career in music

First Congregational Church of Los Angeles was aglow. The neo-Gothic cathedral, designed in 1932 by the same firm that built UCLA’s Royce Hall, was hosting a free evening concert that was part memorial service, but also part christening.

In March, the American Youth Symphony — which was founded in 1957 and had served as an important training ground for musicians headed to some of the nation’s best orchestras — suddenly shuttered. Anthony Parnther, a conductor who was a longtime AYS donor, said he was mystified why no emergency flags had been raised.

“There are so many of us who would have, at an instant, helped them resolve any insolvency,” Parnther said.

He called April Williams, president of the Musicians at Play Foundation, where Parnther is artistic director.

“I have had an increasing interest in working with musicians in this stage who are either in school or just out of school and looking to dedicate their career to music,” Parnther said.

The idea had been brewing, but the AYS news clinched it: He and Musicians at Play speedily formed a new training orchestra, Civic Orchestra of Los Angeles, and scheduled an inaugural concert for April 28, on the same weekend that AYS was supposed to play the final concert of its season. CO-LA reached out to former AYS players and offered the same $300 stipend that they would have received had the AYS performance not been canceled.

Parnther — a busy bassoon player in L.A.’s recording studios, a traveling conductor and music director of the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra — called his friend Thomas Hooten, principal trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and asked him to perform the thrilling concerto by Aleksandra Pakhmutova.

“I thought a trumpet would be great,” Parnther said, “because it’d be kind of like trumpeting the beginning of a new era.”

He also programmed “Seven O’Clock Shout” — an anthem by Valerie Coleman inspired by the frontline workers during the pandemic — and Schumann’s third symphony.

Thirty former AYS members joined a 70-piece orchestra composed of students from nine area colleges. They planned the concert as a one-off, but they secured funding for at least two more in the coming year.

“I have no idea about the future,” Parnther said. “All I know is that I want to get it started, and I’ll deal with keeping it going as we go.”

The pews were full for a crowd-pleasing program of emotional music. Parnther, a charismatic figure, has a growing fan base for his conducting, and he elicited hooting and hollering from the audience. He gave insightful and amusing comments preceding each piece, and his tightly balletic baton style summoned a knockout performance from musicians who, with one exception, were strangers to him before their four rehearsals that weekend.

When Parnther was recruited by Musicians at Play a few years ago, the foundation was mostly producing concerts of John Williams music in Burbank high schools, where local students sat side by side with Williams’ studio players. (April Williams is married to Don Williams, the maestro’s younger brother.)

Parnther noted a lack of Black and brown students, so he created the Rise Diversity Orchestra — drawn from young students all around L.A. — and brought them to the Warner Bros. scoring stage to get session experience and to be mentored by diverse studio musicians.

CO-LA did feature some Rise players, although the two projects have different objectives.

Parnther noted that three training orchestras used to exist in Los Angeles: the Henry Mancini Institute, the Debut Orchestra and the AYS. Now, all three are gone.

“The thought of the second largest city in the country not having a pre-professional orchestra, to me, was baffling,” Parnther said. “So I just wanted to jump into action.”

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