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Curtains to Raise, Montana Youth Symphony Orchestra

They will bring musicians together from across the country to perform with Sir Donald Runnicles.

Over a year and a half in planning, this summer will bring the debut performance of the Montana Youth Symphony Orchestra. A one-week intensive program involving around 45 to 50 students, Sir Donald Runnicles, Music Director of Grand Teton Music Festival, will conduct the orchestra in their gala concert on July 30.

It all began at the Grand Teton Music Festival in 2021, as Dr. Ilse-Mari Lee, President and Founder of the orchestra, listened to cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason perform the Dvorak Cello Concerto with some of her students, who had graduated from college or left Montana for other reasons. “I realized in that moment that we needed to create an opportunity for these students to return to Montana and perform in the Treasure State," she said. While public schools offer music programs and Montana colleges feature orchestras, “there’s nothing for Montanans that have left, nor is there an opportunity for high school and college students to play together,” Lee added. 

She mentioned the idea to others at the time, including Board Member Dr. Dennis Wentz. “When I first met Ilse, she mentioned the idea of a youth symphony orchestra, and I said, ‘That sounds wonderful’ never thinking it would happen,” he said. “She made the vision into focus, and then she called me and said, ‘I want you to be on the board.’”

The entire operation will be performed within a week. Rehearsals begin in Bozeman on July 24, led by Great Falls Symphony Conductor Gordon Johnson, who is also a board member. On Friday, the group will travel to Jackson, WY, as special guests of the Grand Teton Music Festival. There, the students will attend a performance of Richard Strauss' “Ein Heldenleben,” and rehearse Saturday morning with Runnicles. Sunday morning will usher in the orchestra’s debut, occurring at 3 p.m. in the new auditorium at Bozeman High School. Billings pianist Tanner Jorden will be featured as a soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto in C Major, K 467, followed by Mendelssohn's 3rd Symphony, the “Scottish Symphony.”

One of Lee’s foundational experiences was the South African Youth Orchestra in her home country, which she participated in from thirteen through her college years. “It was just the absolute formative experience of my life,” she said. Besides being immersed in great orchestral music, she learned a wide variety of skills, from discipline to goal-setting; but simply hearing older players discuss their plans for college changed her life’s trajectory. “There’s no question that I would not have pursued college or any kind of education beyond high school if I wasn’t in that youth orchestra,” she added.

Most students participating in the Montana Youth Symphony Orchestra are between 20 and 25, though some are as young as 16, according to Board Member Dr. Renée Westlake. A Bozeman public school music educator for 40 years, she has firsthand experience with music’s positive effects on young people. “From the mathematical use of musical technique to the random use of compositional creativity, from the historical impact on all cultures to scientific use of sound production, a young person can find success with the proper nurturing from music educators,” she said.

Wentz expressed similar views. “Music is such a universal language that connects people,” he said. “That’s what we want to create here: training our students to become good citizens by becoming better musicians.”

Lee is already focused beyond this season. “Eventually, we envision statewide tours, where we will bring great orchestral music to smaller communities,” she said. 

For tickets and more information, visit the nonprofit’s website at