STAMFORD — Calla Bai, a 16-year-old from Greenwich, arrived at Westhill High School, her oboe in hand, on the last day of August for an annual ritual — auditioning for a spot in the Stamford Young Artists Philharmonic, an ensemble of local school-age musicians.
Bai, who also plays piano, first picked up the oboe — the bright-sounding cousin of the bassoon — in the fourth grade. With a rich tone and effortless intonation, she is easily one of philharmonic’s most seasoned musicians, though at the moment she has no plans to study music in college.
“I never considered it,” she said. “I would want to play in college, but I don’t think it’s something I would want to major in.”
Players who are talented like Bai and who want to study music in college are exceedingly hard to come by, which is why they are being intensely courted by the Stamford Young Artists Philharmonic (SYAP).
For the past 55 years, the orchestral group has provided a way for developing musicians to practice in an advanced setting. Many have gone on to become music educators, and a few are professional performers.
While membership has hit highs and lows, SYAP has managed to exist in an environment where interest in classical music as a form of entertainment and a leisure activity has declined.
Not only has SYAP endured, its membership has doubled over the past several years, according to the organization. This year SYAP added a youth chorus to its roster of ensembles, which has enrolled more than 100 students for the 2016-17 season.
This expansion is the work of musical director Christian Capocaccia, who has led SYAP for five years with a vision to recruit more high-level players — who, despite the philharmonic’s growth, still elude the organization.
“In high school, you already have people who are considering the possibility of going to college for music,” said Capocaccia, who suggested to Bai during her audition that she consider a major in music.
SYAP has three orchestras: the Young String Ensemble for beginners, the Young People’s Symphony for intermediate players, and its flagship orchestra, the Young Artists Philharmonic, for advanced players.
Capocaccia hopes to split the Young Artists Philharmonic into two groups — one for advanced amateurs and another for budding professionals.
“We are missing a group and that’s what I’m hoping we can create,” he said. “One orchestra isn’t enough. You need one for amateurs that is fun and challenging, but not discouraging, and it has to be more than a school orchestra or else they don’t have a reason to come here. You also need a high school orchestra that is going to be extremely challenging for people who want to go for it.”
There’s competition for a small pool of talented players. Among regional youth orchestras, Norwalk Youth Symphony and the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestra are considered the premiere ensembles outside of New York City.
“It’s a competition, but it doesn’t have to be a competition,” Capocaccia said. “Most people tend to think about Norwalk as the one for excellence. We have a slightly different style. There are some things about Norwalk that people don’t like — not that they’re wrong, it’s just a different mentality.”
For most of its existence, SYAP was run by founder Sal Princiotti, a Juilliard-trained violinist and longtime music teacher in Darien and Greenwich.
“As a school teacher I saw there were many talented young people that might benefit from further experience with more difficult music,” Princiotti said. “My concept was to challenge them and make them enjoy music. I wasn’t trying to make professional musicians out of them, I just wanted to give them a good experience in music. Some of them enjoyed it so much they decided to go on professionally.”
Under his leadership, the organization grew from one orchestra to three. They played for President George W. Bush and traveled to Italy, performing concerts in Rome and Siena.
But after 50 years at its helm, Princiotti stepped down from SYAP and appointed Capocaccia, an Italian native who studied in Rome at the Santa Cecilia Music Conservatory and at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Capocaccia conducts the Young Artists Philharmonic, with Barbara DiFranco and Gregory Robbins leading the beginner and intermediate groups.
Princiotti, now 82, auditioned 20 conductors when he decided to step down.
“They needed to have the right background and have a good relationship with kids,” he said. “As soon as Christian conducted, I kind of picked him out. He was dynamic and had energy. Some of the others were really quite bad. I don’t know how they were making a living. Christian seems to have it together and to enjoy it.”
Hard act to follow
Princiotti is not an easy act to follow. “When I came to the area I went to talk to people in the public school system for recruitment and I found that more than half of the teachers in Fairfield County studied with him at one point,” Capocaccia said.
“This guy has an enormous legacy,” he said. “He’s got this incredible heart — he’s selfless and devoted to teaching.”
His former students include DiFranco, a longtime teacher in Norwalk who conducts the Young String Ensemble, and Gloria Sinaguglia, a music educator at Stamford High School. Sinaguglia was an SYAP member and past conductor of the Young People’s Symphony.
“[Princiotti] was the inspiration and motivation for hundreds of students and it lives on in each of us who worked with him,” Sinaguglia said. “His love, care and devotion to each of us and the music we made has stayed with, and is precious to, each of us.”
Like Princiotti, Capocaccia takes seriously what he sees as the philharmonic’s directive to teach young people and to foster an appreciation of classical music. In the future, he sees classical music and its performance serving a role similar to exercise — a way to condition the brain.
“We are trying to create a role for music in society,” he said. “More than professional orchestras we’re in the position to do that because it’s our mandate. That’s why our motto is ‘transforming life through music.’ ”