History and Mission

The American Youth Symphony’s mission is to inspire the future of classical music.  We share exceptional, innovative concerts based on our landmark Fellowship program for musicians in high school through doctoral music programs, for free or significantly reduced admission.  Competitively selected, our orchestra is comprised of 100 musicians who represent extraordinary talent from all over the world. By gifting our community with remarkable concerts at world-class venues, we remain committed to creating access and opportunity for everyone to experience the inspiration of this beautiful art form.

Mehli Mehta
Founding Music Director

Leslie Chelsey, concertmaster; Mehli Mehta, conductor; and Linda Quan, assistant concertmaster

Mehli Mehta came to Los Angeles in 1964 to teach at UCLA and become director of the orchestra department. Within two months of his arrival, he took over the American Youth Symphony (then made up of university students) and made it his own with the help of Mildreth Sheinkopf Samson. AYS was his pride and joy. He conducted the orchestra’s first 33 seasons, only retiring at the age of 90. Under his guidance the orchestra grew into a 100+ member ensemble, with musicians ranging in age from 18 to 27. Most of them came from schools (like UCLA) that did not have the resources for playing the big orchestral repertoire of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Mr. Mehta cared deeply about what he did. Violinist Lawrence Sonderling, a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1977 and a former AYS concertmaster, said that Mr. 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. 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. Always the intensity was there. And the passion.”

Mehli Mehta and Terry King, principal cello

In May 1998, he left the stage after his farewell concert in obvious discomfort: “The doctor said that, were it not for the defibrillator regulating my heartbeat, I would have been dead on the spot.” He passed away on October 19, 2002.

Mr. Mehta was born to Parsi parents in Bombay, India, on Sept. 25, 1908. He became interested in Western classical music while listening to his father’s records of violinists Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz and Efrem Zimbalist, and began violin studies when he was 5.

After studying at the University of Bombay and Trinity College of Music in London, he founded the Bombay Symphony in 1935, serving for 10 years as concertmaster before becoming its conductor. In 1940, he founded the Bombay String Quartet.

“I should have been born in Europe,” he told The Times in 1994. “In my 25 years playing in India, not one Hindu, not one Muslim came to my concerts. Only the English and the Americans came.”

Hoping to become a world-class violinist, Mr. Mehta moved to New York on a student visa in 1945 to study with the eminent pedagogue Ivan Galamian. “It was the heyday of great conductors and virtuosos,” he said. “At my best, unhappily, I was no match for Nathan Milstein and Jasha Heifetz.”

Mr. Mehta returned to Bombay to take over the podium of the Bombay Symphony, but wanted to return to the United States. When he was unable to obtain a U.S. visa, he moved to England in 1955. He served for five years as concertmaster of the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli, whom he acknowledged as “one of the greatest influences of my conducting life.”

Mr. Mehta joined the Curtis String Quartet in Philadelphia in 1960 as second violinist and toured with the group until he moved to Los Angeles.

With his wife of 67 years, Tehmina, he raised two sons who play important roles in classical music. One son, Zubin, former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic, and former general music director of the Bavarian State Opera, is music director for life of the Israel Philharmonic. The other, Zarin, former executive director of the Montreal Symphony and the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, is executive director of the New York Philharmonic.

Mr. Mehta was the recipient of the Governor’s “Award for the Arts” of the California Arts Council: the “Magnum Opus Award” of the University of Southern California; the American String Teachers Award; the Award of Merit from the Mayor and Council of Los Angeles; and the Zoroastrian Association of California’s Honorable Award.


Alexander Treger
AYS Music Director 1998-2015

After seventeen successful years with the orchestra, Maestro Alexander Treger completed his tenure as Music Director of the American Youth Symphony in Spring 2015. In the announcement of his departure, Maestro Treger stated: “Working for the last 17 years with so many exceptional young musicians, I have been inspired by their dedication and artistry. It has been a joy to guide them from talented student to professional performer; in fact, it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.”

Treger came to the American Youth Symphony in 1998, succeeding Maestro Mehli Mehta  while maintaining the highest standard of training and performance quality. Treger has garnered numerous accolades for his gifts as an educator, his talent on the podium and, of course, his 36 years at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which included the concertmaster position. Under his leadership, the American Youth Symphony  performed at Carnegie Hall and Walt Disney Concert Hall, and worked with numerous world-class musicians including Yefim Bronfman, Sarah Chang, Midori, Johannes Moser, Alan Silvestri, and John Williams.