When 300 teenagers crowd into an LDS cultural hall in Las Vegas, Nevada, after a full day of seminary, school and homework, you’d expect them to make some noise. What you might not expect, though, is for the noise they make to sound so beautiful. But, for the 300 members of Zion’s Youth Symphony and Chorus (ZYSC), accomplishing the unexpected is…well…expected, and making beautiful noise is expectation number one.
Founded in 2003, the group was originally comprised of a small string orchestra, which performed mostly in LDS chapels and stake centers around the Las Vegas valley. Fast forward a decade, and ZYSC-now made up of approximately 100 symphony members and 200 chorus members-performs twice each year at the world-class Smith Center for the Performing Arts to sold-out crowds. (The famous $470 million performing arts center, which opened in 2012, has seating for 2,050 in its main theatre).
ZYSC is once again gathering in a local cultural hall to begin rehearsals for its 2013 November concert. The music is inspiring. The Sunday, November 3rd production, entitled “How Firm a Foundation: A Tribute to the Builders of a Nation,” will celebrate American patriots and pioneers whose sacrifices and faith have made our nation great. Music Directors David Skouson and Jeffrey Skouson, who happen to be brothers, will head up the symphony and chorus.
ZYSC started in the summer of 2003, when violin teachers Jenny Jackson and Terilyn Taylor decided to create an organization for young LDS musicians in Las Vegas to build their testimonies and serve others through music. Jeremy Woolstenhulme, a cellist and orchestra director at Hyde Park Middle School joined forces with Sister Jackson and Sister Taylor to organize a small string orchestra. They performed three concerts that first season and provided music at the annual fireside for workers at the Las Vegas Temple. Elder Richard G. Scott was the featured speaker at the fireside. After hearing the new orchestra perform, he sought out Sisters Jackson and Taylor and encouraged them to keep the group going, emphasizing that the “youth of the church in Las Vegas and the community of Las Vegas need this group.”
Emboldened by Elder Scott’s support, the three musicians expanded their string orchestra to include woodwinds, brass and percussion the following year, creating a full symphony orchestra. In its 2nd season, the symphony performed several concerts with stake youth choirs throughout the city. After the Christmas concert of 2004, it became clear that the next step in the development of the growing organization, was the addition of a permanent choir. DeNae Handy, an experienced choir director was invited to organize and direct the choir and the Las Vegas Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus was born.
Since that time the symphony and chorus have been invited to perform at various venues throughout Nevada and Utah. The group has taken two tours; the first, in 2005-6 was through Utah with concerts in Cedar City, Springville and Salt Lake City, the second tour was to southern Utah in the 2006-7 season.
In 2013, a new name was selected: Zion’s Youth Symphony and Chorus. From its simple beginnings as a small string orchestra, ZYSC now moves forward with a full board of directors and dozens of volunteers, all of whom volunteer their time and expertise to further the best possible experience for the young musicians involved.
Due to the size of the stages where they perform, the chorus and symphony have had to make the difficult decision to impose limits on the number of youth who can participate. The popularity of the symphony and choir is shown by the numbers. Recently, auditions resulted in the need to turn away over 80 voices and 40 instruments to keep the numbers at a manageable size (300) to fit on the large Smith Center stage! The semi-annual concerts are extremely popular. The 4,000 free tickets are distributed in less than 1 hour when they become available on-line every six months for their concerts.
This year’s concert will also feature the exceptional talents of composer, pianist and recording artist Michael R. Hicks. The symphony and chorus will be accompanied by Hicks on, among other pieces, one of his best-known works: “EFY Medley: As Sisters in Zion & We’ll Bring the World His Truth.” There will be two performances of “How Firm a Foundation” at The Smith Center on November 3rd: one at 5:00 p.m. and a second at 7:30 p.m.
Although, ZYSC’s membership and following have increased dramatically over the years, the organization’s mission has remained the same: “to cultivate the Spirit of the Lord and build testimonies of the gospel through the development of musical talent and performance of inspiring music.”
This year, the musicians’ testimonies are being shared far beyond the Las Vegas valley, thanks to an lds.org video spotlighting ZYSC’s members and mission. The lds.org video, entitled “Bloom Where You’re Planted,” was released in December 2012 as a resource for the Church’s 2013 youth theme. It has already had over 100,000 views and a DVD has been distributed to young women leaders world-wide.
The video can also be viewed on the Mormon Channel and on ZYSC’s website , where information about joining the symphony and chorus and obtaining tickets to the November 3rd concert can also be found. In the coming years, the Zion’s Youth Symphony and Chorus will continue to provide opportunities for the youth to build their testimonies and serve others through their beautiful music.