From red wagons to Red China: Richard Pontzious and the Asian Youth Orchestra return to Zellerbach

The Asian Youth Orchestra performs Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Strauss’ Don Juan at the Hammer Theatre Center in San Jose, Aug. 4 and UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on Aug. 5. Photo courtesy of the Asian Youth Orchestra.

When Richard Pontzious signed as conductor-in-residence with the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1983 the Cultural Revolution’s brutal legacy still shadowed the campus. China’s oldest and most prestigious music school had only reopened five years earlier and the faculty was still recovering from occupation by Mao’s Red Guards, who drove more than a dozen of the conservatory’s faculty to commit suicide after sustained campaigns of humiliation and persecution.

But change was in the air, and with China opening up to the world and a rising generation of Chinese musicians, Pontzious and violin legend and conductor Yehudi Menuhin decided to launch the Asian Youth Orchestra in 1987. It took several years to get the ambitious trans-national project off the ground—the Tiananmen massacre added another year’s delay—but the orchestra debuted in 1990 and is going stronger than ever today. The AYO performs Friday at San Jose’s Hammer Theatre and Saturday at Zellerbach. Presented by Cal Performances, Saturday’s program includes Strauss’s “Don Juan,” Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7,” and Sibelius’s “Violin Concerto” with the sublime violin star Sarah Chang making a relatively rare Bay Area appearance.

In many ways, Chang’s sui generis path from child prodigy to featured soloist with the world’s great orchestras represents the mirage of classical music fame that the AYO was created to dispel. After decades of teaching in Asia, particularly Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong (where the AYO is based) “it became clear that there was a hole in the education process around Asia,” Pontzious said from Tokyo. “Just like in the U.S., kids are fed this lie with teachers telling their students they’re going to be soloists. We wanted to create an institution that would teach young musicians how to audition for an orchestra, who play in an orchestra, how to lead a section, and all the other skills you need to thrive in the orchestral world.”

AYO co-founder and conductor Richard Protzious learned to walk on the Cal campus. Photo courtesy of the Asian Youth Orchestra.

Over the past three decades, scores of AYO alumni have gone on to careers in top orchestras. With musicians drawn from nearly a dozen countries and territories, the ensemble features 109 musicians between the ages of 17 and 27 (a bracket that’s more of a guideline than a rule). The musicians come together for the summer from Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Macau, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, for intensive rehearsals and international touring.


On a continent with long historical memories and overlapping legacies of invasion and colonization, bringing together artists from these countries means overcoming the understandable apprehension of the musicians. The AYO doesn’t offer any kind of sensitivity training or orientation to ease interactions. Musicians communicate mostly via English, music serves as the lingua franca, and Pontzious takes great pride in the intrepid spirit of many AYO alumni.

“My favorite story is a flutist from Japan who after her AYO experience decided to audition for an orchestra in China,” he said. “The thought of a young Japanese woman going by herself to audition for a Chinese orchestra, winning the position and staying for a couple of years really says a lot about what the impact has been.”

Pontzious’s cross-cultural path almost took a very different course. Eager to travel after graduating from the New York College of Music in 1967 he was planning on teaching music in Tehran. When the teacher he was replacing decided to stay, he was offered a position at the International School in Taipei, and he’s been in East Asia ever since. He landed in Shanghai as the first overseas musician to settle in China after the Cultural Revolution, and quickly forged deep and enduring friendships.

“My colleagues and students were eager to know more about Western classical music,” he recalled. “It’s what their parents had been studying before, and some had suffered because of that study. Around the time I arrived Weigang Li, who had studied at the San Francisco Conservatory, founded the Shanghai Quartet and they introduced me to their colleagues and looked after me when I was in China. It was through them that I connected with Yehudi Menuhin in 1987 when they came in second at the International String Quartet Competition.”

With Pontzious serving as artistic director and conductor for the Bay Area programs, the AYO tour gives him a chance to visit his old stomping grounds. Pontzious grew up in the Bay Area, and spent his early childhood in Berkeley, where his father worked as an engineer helping the campus expand in the years after World War II. After stints in Castro Valley and Davis, he ended up graduating from high school in San Jose, but he traces some of his earliest memories to Cal.


“I learned to walk going across the green lawns of the Berkeley campus,” he said. “And I remember my little red wagon being stolen. I never got it back.” Hmm, some things never change.

Tickets for the Asian Youth Orchestra with Sarah Chang on Saturday, August 5 at 8pm at Cal Perforamnces are available through the Ticket Office at Zellerbach Hall, at (510) 642-9988, at calperformances.org, and at the door.

Recommended gigs: Rebecca Coupe Franks and Jessica Jones; Teja Gerken and Pete Madsen

Some of the illustrious faculty members from the California Jazz Conservatory’s Girls’ Jazz and Blues Camp perform at the CJC on Saturday night in a sextet under the leadership of trumpeter Rebecca Coupe Franks and tenor saxophonist Jessica Jones, who are both based in New York. They’re joined by tenor saxophonist Tony Jones (who met his bandleader wife when they were junior high students in Berkeley), pianist Maya Kronfeld, drummer Ruthie Price, and bassist Owen Clapp.

Timbre Folk & Baroque Musical Instruments presents North Bay fingerstyle guitar master Teja Gerken and Berkeley acoustic blues and slide guitar expert Pete Madsen on Saturday. It’s a house concert-style event, and I hope to write more about luthier Mark Walstrom and his new store in the near future.