Mission and History


The mission of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Youth Orchestras is to provide the finest quality orchestral training and performance opportunities for aspiring young musicians in the greater Chattanooga area.


In 1949, it was decided by a group of Chattanooga Symphony musicians that area strings, wind, and percussion students needed the opportunity to perform in a full orchestra. During that period, only five or six area schools offered any type of string instrumental music education. Most of the school programs were relatively small and had imbalanced ensembles. Joseph Hawthorne assumed the post of musical director of the Chattanooga Philharmonic Association, incorporating the Civic Chorus and the Chattanooga Civic Training Orchestra as well under his baton. Peter Rickett, assistant conductor of the Chattanooga Philharmonic Orchestra, was named conductor of the Chattanooga Civic Training Orchestra. Rehearsals were held on Saturday mornings at Chattanooga High School on East Third Street (now Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences).

The purpose of this organization was to provide a means whereby players of orchestral instruments could gain experience in playing in an orchestra and an acquaintance with the symphonic repertoire.  Over a period of ten years, the popularity of the Youth Orchestra made it one of the top orchestras in the area. Although set up by the Chattanooga Philharmonic as a training ground for young people, there was no age limit, and capable players of any age interested in increasing their knowledge of the orchestral literature were welcome.  The orchestra was reorganized in 1955 as the Chattanooga Youth Training Orchestra. The Chattanooga Symphony and the Chattanooga Public School System employed Chris Xeros from Texas as the first conductor of The Youth Orchestra as well as the director of the orchestra at Chattanooga High School. He was also an itinerant junior high string teacher and concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra.

In 1958, Thomas Beck, a Chattanooga Symphony violist and string teacher, became the conductor. At that time the orchestra rehearsed on Saturday mornings in the rehearsal hall of Memorial Auditorium. After several years Thomas Hall, another Chattanooga Symphony violist, became the conductor.

Robert Crane was employed as conductor in 1964. He was a horn player in the Chattanooga Symphony and band director at Brainerd High School. Jay M. Craven took over the baron from 1965-66.  Rehearsals were held at the University of Chattanooga, and concerts were presented at Brainerd United Methodist Church. Frank Witherspoon, who played clarinet with the Chattanooga Symphony, followed as conductor for the 1966-67 season.

In 1967, Richard Cormier was hired as conductor of the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra as well as the Chattanooga Symphony Youth Orchestra. The Kiwanis Club co-sponsored the CSYO along with the Chattanooga Symphony.  Rehearsals were held at Memorial Auditorium and concerts were presented at various locations, including Southern Missionary College. A highlight of each season was a performance with the Chattanooga Boys’ Choir Singing Christmas Tree program. James Stroud, a CSO cellist, served as co-director for two years.

After several years’ absence in the early 1980s, the orchestra was reorganized as the Chattanooga Youth Orchestra in 1985. Mary Barker, Chairman of the Education Committee of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Association Board, worked with local music educators Linda Pennebaker, Kay Smith, Sandy Morris, and interested parents to discuss and implement ways to revive interest in a youth orchestra for Chattanooga area students. Orlo Gilbert, director of the Southern College Symphony Orchestra, was the first conductor of the reorganized group. This group started as a string orchestra and grew to include wind and percussion instruments. Mr. Gilbert, along with the Chattanooga Youth Orchestra Board members, was able to build the membership to 80 musicians, indicating a serious desire for a full orchestra in which talented students could participate. The “premier performance” was presented on November 18, 1986, at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. The 1987 Spring Concert was held at Brainerd High School. Both schools were very supportive and provided rehearsal space.

In the fall of 1987, Philip Rice was named assistant conductor of the Chattanooga Symphony and conductor of the Chattanooga Symphony Youth Orchestra (renamed to recognize the Chattanooga Symphony for its sponsorship). Rehearsals and performances were held at the School for the Performing Arts at Chattanooga High School until 1991. With the Chattanooga Symphony as the parent group of the Youth Orchestra, community leaders, public arts councils, area music educators, patrons and students recognized the importance of this ensemble.

Jay M. Craven took up the baton once again in 1988. In addition to conducting the CSOYO, Mr. Craven performed as principal clarinetist with the CSO Orchestra and was director of personnel of the CSOA. Weekly rehearsals were held at the School for Performing Arts every Monday evening during the season. Beginning with the 1991 Spring Concert, performances were held at the UTC Fine Arts Center, Roland Hayes Concert Hall. The performance schedule grew under Mr.Craven’s direction to include a very successful “Pops in the Pavilion” dinner concert at Waterhouse Pavilion in Miller Plaza and a concert at “Artstravaganza” in Miller Plaza. An ensemble program was added, as well as sectional rehearsals with members of the CSO Orchestra. Jay Craven retired at the end of the 1992 season, and David Conn took up the baton.

In 1993, the baton was passed to Gary Wilkes. Under his direction, the orchestra grew tremendously and a second full orchestra was added. Sandy Morris was hired as the conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra in 1998.

Recognizing the need for a string training orchestra, the Etude Orchestra was added in 2000.  Nichole (Graham) Pitts was hired as the conductor. With interest continually growing, a second string orchestra, the Prelude Orchestra, was added in 2006, with Nichole Pitts also as conductor.  Beginning in 2015, Floy Wang became the conductor of the Prelude Orchestra, and is now conducting the Etude Orchestra as well.

Membership in 2010 grew to 190 as the CSOYO celebrated its 25th anniversary. The crowning event was the Midori Residency, an honor shared by only one other youth orchestra in the nation that season.  Midori arrived in Chattanooga for a week of activities with the CSO Orchestra and the CSO Youth Orchestras.  The highpoint was the concert on October 17, 2010 with the CSOYO Symphony, featuring Midor (Barber Violin Concerto) and student soloists with Midori (Vivaldi Concerto for Four Violins, Bach Concerto for Two Violins).

The Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Association sponsors the CSOYO in recognition that opportunities for developing the talent of young musicians must be promoted in the Chattanooga area. The CSOYO is also funded in part by the Tennessee Arts Commission and ArtsBuild.