“American Youth Symphony Announces Permanent Closure” said the “breaking news” headline on the Violin Channel newsletter I subscribe to.

Rubbing my eyes in disbelief, I read further: “Citing financial challenges, the orchestra is ceasing all operations as of March 15, 2024, after almost 60 years.”

Due to my interest in music education, I keep abreast of youth orchestras and ensembles around the world. The American Youth Symphony was particularly well-known to me because it was founded in 1964 by Mehli Mehta (1908-2002), who is today better recognised as father of the celebrated maestro Zubin Mehta.

But Mehta senior was an acclaimed virtuoso violinist (whose violin-playing can still be heard today in the All India Radio’s signature tune) and conductor. It was the musical milieu in the Mehli Mehta household in Bombay that was the stimulus for the phenomenon that his illustrious son still is today.


Zubin Mehta acknowledged as much when he said at a press conference that his father had been his first teacher, that he had grown up listening to his father’s symphony and quartet rehearsals and that, until he was 18 and went to Vienna to study, “everything I knew about music was from my father”.

The media spotlight on the son, particularly in India, has meant that the father’s life in music is that much less well known.

Mehli Mehta founded the Bombay String Quartet in 1940. He spent five years in New York City studying with Armenian-American violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian, who was the teacher of seminal violin players such as Dorothy DeLay, Itzhak Perlman Kyung Wha Chung, Glen Dicterow, Eugene Fodor, Ani and Ida Kavafian, Michael Rabin, Simon Standage and Pinchas Zukerman.

In 1955, Mehli Mehta moved to England where he spent five years as Assistant Concertmaster and Concertmaster of the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester under Sir John Barbirolli, whom Mehta considered “one of the greatest influences of my conducting life”.

He joined the Curtis Quartet of Philadelphia in 1959 as second violinist and toured with them across the United States for the next five years. Mehli and his wife Tehmina then moved to Los Angeles in 1964 after Zubin was appointed conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was Director of the Orchestra Department at the University of California, Los Angeles, until 1976.

Within a couple of months after his arrival there in 1964, Mehli organised the American Youth Symphony with students from all the universities in Los Angeles.

Its mission statement: “To train gifted young musicians for professional careers in symphony orchestras; to make music available to all segments of the community through free concerts and activities around town.”

“It takes a lifetime to learn symphonic literature,” Mehli Mehta has said. “The students know nothing and they must begin somewhere to dedicate their lives to learning this repertory. When they leave the American Youth Symphony they will have performed all the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, plus the last six symphonies of Mozart, five of Mahler, two of Bruckner and all the Strauss tone poems. To be a musician, you must know these things.”

He would lead the American Youth Symphony for 33 seasons, retiring at the age of 90 in 1998.


The American Youth Symphony’s audition information at the now-defunct website promised opportunities to enhance musical growth, experiment, study new works and “perform at a high level of excellence some of the great repertoire required of a musician today!”

Each season, around 250-300 applicants auditioned to fill an average of 30 open positions. There was no audition fee.

On German musician Ludiwg van Beethoven’s 200th birthday on December 16, 1970, father and son conducted their respective orchestras in a 12-hour Beethoven Marathon at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Mehli led the American Youth Symphony in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, while Zubin conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Sixth and the finale of the Ninth.

Sir John Barbirolli attended one of Mehli’s concerts with the American Youth Symphony. According to author Michael Kennedy, in his biography of Barbirolli, the great conductor said, “I am glad I did, for dear Mehli was magnificent. Made those children play really quite splendidly. I was really thrilled and impressed.”

Mehli mentored many generations of musicians through the American Youth Symphony. Violinist Lawrence Sonderling, a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1977 and a former American Youth Symphony concertmaster, said that Mehli Mehta “did everything with great intensity and great purpose and great love for music.”

“It was always the music that was the most important thing,” said Sonderling. “In rehearsal with the orchestra, he would badger us, he would yell and scream; sometimes he would tell stories of things he had heard and seen in his musical youth.” There was always the intensity, said Sonderling. “And the passion.”

After his father’s death in 2002, Zubin Mehta told the Los Angeles Times: “Any concert of mine that he attended, there was no doubt to whom my message was going. That is what I will miss in Los Angeles, because he will not be there anymore.”

But the American Youth Symphony lived on after Mehli Mehta, performing five to seven concerts each season. The majority of the concerts were presented free at world-class concert halls, including UCLA’s Royce Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall and local community venues alike, with “the goal of welcoming anyone who is interested to enjoy this beautiful art form”

Press reviews spoke of the “assured maturity, polish and depth” of the orchestra concerts.

American Youth Symphony alumni went on to play in major American orchestras. A 2014 survey found that 13 American Youth Symphony alumni performed with the LA Opera, seven with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and 14 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The press release announcing the sad news of the American Youth Symphony closure stated that it had played a crucial role in “nurturing the next generation of professional musicians and fostering a vibrant artistic community”. It proudly noted the presentation of “ambitious seasons of thoughtful programming of exceptionally high quality” that covered symphonic music, “including beloved classics, film scores, chamber works, and contemporary pieces, while championing many of today’s composers”.

It also spoke of “insurmountable” challenges and an “unsustainable financial infrastructure.” “We have exhausted every effort and hope the larger orchestral industry and classical music philanthropic community take note to shore-up these important pre-professional orchestras like AYS which directly benefit them,” it said.

This is part of a larger, depressing trend worldwide to cut funding for music education at all levels, from the grassroots to the top. In February, there was outrage over “mean and nasty cuts” to the Melbourne Youth Orchestras, Australia.

India, unfortunately lags far behind, not having a national youth orchestra in the truest sense of the term, with several concerts each season annually and with year-round world-class mentoring. As a country, our priorities are elsewhere.

In global terms, a 1953 cartoon, “The restaurant serves only one person” remains sadly topical: waiters fuss over a bloated representation of War while other, emaciated customers, the Arts, Sciences, Healthcare and Education helplessly look on.

Luis Dias is a a physician, musician, photographer and writer who lives in Goa. He is the founder of Child’s Play India Foundation, a music charity that aims to impart teaching the playing of orchestral instruments to disadvantaged children.

This article first appeared in the Navhind Times.