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Parkway senior Sean Byrne tapped for National Youth Orchestra

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 1, 2013 - When Carnegie Hall’s Weiss Institute announced the inaugural National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America earlier this month, a local musician was one of those selected. Viola player Sean Byrne, a senior at Parkway Central High School, is one of 120 musicians chosen from around the country.

He is only one of two from Missouri chosen for this prestigious honor – one that will take him and his fellow National Youth Orchestra musicians on an international concert tour from Washington, D.C., to Europe later this summer.

But the notification that Byrne had been named to the select orchestra was just the latest accomplishment for this accomplished young musician. He’s been a member of the St. Louis Symphony’s Youth Orchestra for several seasons, has participated in the Community Music School of Webster University’s Professional Preparatory Program, and has attended Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute summer program – where he studied under musicians from the Boston Symphony.

“It was a really big deal,” Byrne says, discussing his National Youth Orchestra nomination during a phone conversation on Monday after classes at Parkway Central were cancelled. “The Carnegie audition process actually started last May when they put out the guidelines for applying and auditioning. It was an online process, and you had to submit videos of yourself playing. So I planned what I needed to do, then got everything together and submitted in November. Finally, they announced the winners early this month, and I made it!”

Young musicians ages 16-19 were chosen for this initial season; and conductor Valery Gergiev will lead the orchestra. Violinist Joshua Bell will be the featured soloist in a program that will include Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 and a new work by American composer Sean Shepherd commissioned especially for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America

“In late June, we’ll all get together at Purchase College in New York,” Byrne says. “We’ll be rehearsing there for two weeks with our guest conductor. After that, we’ll perform our first concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., then fly to Europe. We’ll play concerts in Moscow, St. Petersburg and London – and those concerts are all in July after the Kennedy Center concert.”

Byrne, who was born in California, began playing violin in Texas after his family moved there. When he was almost in high school in St. Louis, he decided to switch to the viola.

“I was about three-and-a-half when my parents started me out playing violin in a Suzuki program,” Byrne says. “We moved here to St. Louis before I started school, and that’s when I began taking violin lessons at the Community Music School with Nancy Daby. She worked with me all the way up until high school, and that’s when I started taking lessons with Marc Thayer – and also got serious about viola.”

Thayer is the director of education for The Association of American Voices, a group whose activities the Beacon has written about in previous articles. But before that he was vice president for education and community partnerships with the symphony; and he teaches violin and viola at the Community Music School.

By the time Thayer began giving Byrne lessons on violin, the young musician had already begun experimenting with viola.

“I started playing viola just for fun when I was going to Parkway Central Middle School,” says Byrne. “And by the time I started high school, I really began taking it seriously. Marc taught both viola and violin, and he was the one who actually encouraged me to try out for the Youth Symphony on viola.”

“Sean has been a pleasure to teach and work with in various situations for the past few years,” says Thayer in discussing his teaching relationship with Byrne. “His proficiency and level of maturity are well beyond his years. So I have to remind myself that he's still in high school! He also has a great sense of humor as well as a very diverse range of interests, which add to his creativity and musicianship.”

Byrne was accepted into the symphony’s Youth Orchestra as a freshman at Parkway Central High, and his talent on the instrument has blossomed in that setting over the last few years. He is now the principal viola in the orchestra. In addition to the strong support system already in place at SLSO for the YO musicians, Byrne has a very special connection at Powell Hall as well. His mother, Maureen Byrne, is the Community Programs Manager for the Symphony.

“My mom arranges for chamber concert performances by musicians in the Symphony,” says Byrne. “She has always been very supportive of my brother and me as far as music. She has a piano background, and would work with us on music – and she would go to hear us practice and perform since we were little.”

As Byrne prepares for his exciting musical summer practicing and touring with the National Youth Orchestra, he’s also looking forward to high school graduation – and preparing for college. Underscoring Thayer’s comment about Byrne’s “diverse range of interests,” he’s looking at another possible career choice other than becoming a professional musician.

“I’m still deciding between about three colleges,” says Byrne. “But one thing I’m really thinking about is majoring in chemistry and becoming a doctor. I love playing music, but I think that’s the direction I’m headed in now.”

Before Byrne heads to New York this June, he has two more performances on his schedule here in St. Louis. He’ll be playing with the SLSO Youth Orchestra at Powell Hall on Saturday, May 18 for its final performance of the season. Tickets are free. For more information, go to the symphony's website.

And on Sunday May, 5, Byrne will be performing his final Webster Prep Program concert at 7 p.m. Tickets are also free for this concert. For more information on the location and details of that performance, call: 314-968-5939.

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