Keitaro Harada has high expectations for the 86 musicians in his Phoenix Youth Symphony.
The ensemble, ranging from a pair of virtuoso middle school violinists to high school seniors mostly from the Phoenix area, is largely regarded as one of the top youth orchestras in the country. They perform repertoire on par with some of Arizona's finest pre-professional orchestras and earn rave reviews from audiences and critics alike.
"We've gotten them into the mentality that this is not your typical high school orchestra," says Harada, 26, who is in his second season with the orchestra. "They come prepared. This is a really, really high-level, almost a professional-level orchestra."
On Sunday, the orchestra will perform a concert in Tucson, one of two out-of-Phoenix concerts planned for the 2011-12 season. The other is in Denver.
"This season has been extremely busy, primarily because I am pushing them to the limits," Harada says, ticking off the 11 performances for the ensemble, whose repertoire includes works by Mussorgsky, Grieg, Prokofiev, Wagner and Copland. Next April, violinist Steven Moeckel, concertmaster for the Phoenix Symphony, joins the group for Brahms' Violin Concerto in D major.
"Eleven concerts for a youth orchestra is really unheard of in this country, but I've brought the ensemble up to a level where everyone is hungry to be in the top orchestra," says Harada, the symphony's music director.
At Sunday's concert, the ensemble will tackle a pair of warhorses in Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" Prelude and Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty" Suite alongside the dynamic Symphonic Variants for Euphonium by James Curnow, which was recently commissioned by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.
"The talent level is so high," says Harada, who was a graduate fellow in the University of Arizona School of Music's James E. Rogers Institute for Orchestral and Opera Conducting. "We play super-musically. We really give our heart and soul into each note. That's sort of my motto: Don't just play notes; play music."
In addition to the Phoenix Youth Symphony, Harada is an assistant conductor with Arizona Opera and guest-conducts around the country including serving as principal guest conductor with the Sierra Vista Symphony. He has worked alongside some of the biggest names in conducting, including Lorin Maazel at the Castleton Festival and Christoph von Dohnányi at Tanglewood. Early this year, he was invited by Fabio Luisi to the prestigious Pacific Music Festival Conducting Academy in Sapporo, Japan.
Phoenix Youth Symphony is one of the oldest youth symphonies in the United States. It marks its 60th anniversary next year.
If you go
• What: Phoenix Youth Symphony with conductor Keitaro Harada.
• When: 2 p.m. Sunday.
• Where: Crowder Hall, North Park Avenue and East Speedway on the University of Arizona campus.
• Cost: $5.
• Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" Prelude and "Love Death."
• James Curnow's Symphonic Variants for Euphonium; Kelly Thomas on euphonium.
• Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty" Suite.
• Borodin's Polovetsian Dances from "Prince Igor."