THE first Young Concert Artists (YCA) concert, in 1961, was a casual, even offbeat affair in a restaurant in Greenwich Village. This year, however, the gala that celebrates a quarter-century of YCA's assistance to young artists on the verge of great careers will take place before a black tie audience in New York's prestigious Alice Tully Hall on June 10.
A lot has happened in the interim, and Susan Wadsworth, the founder, has been at the helm for all of it. She has watched YCA grow from its small Village beginnings to 40 series spanning the country from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Hanover, N.H.
How did she get involved in YCA in the first place?
``I always wanted to do something in music but didn't just want to work as a secretary in [concert] management. I didn't know what to do to be close to it and yet not be a musician -- not perform.''
She knew several young artists -- among them violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi and pianist Richard Goode. Others -- pianist Ilana Vered and flutist Paula Robison -- had crossed her path. When she inquired if they would be interested in a concert date in New York, they all jumped to attention.
Eventually Mrs. Wadsworth realized that it was not enough to give only one date to an artist. Other New York organizations aimed at the younger artist were overloaded, so there was clearly a need for something like YCA. With the encouragement of several other managers, as well as friends, Wadsworth forged ahead.
A major breakthrough came when she hired an assistant. ``Ever since then, the more I got to know about the business and the more I got known enough for people to seek me out and [to] want me to help them, it just kind of grew. I became more aware of what needed to be done, and then later on -- much later on -- how to get to it and make it happen!''
Since 1961, the list of artists YCA has managed includes such prominent names as Pinchas Zukerman, Ruth Laredo, Murray Perahia, Paul Zukofsky, Anthony Newman, Eugenia Zukerman, Emanuel Ax, the Tokyo String Quartet, Steven de Groote, Marvis Martin, Joseph Kalichstein, and Daniel Adni.
Wadsworth stresses that YCA is not a competition. Artists apply for auditions. These days, YCA hears any and all whose applications are accepted -- sometimes over 400 artists. These are narrowed down to 50 to 60 semifinalists, then to about 10 to 15 for the finals. At that point, the special jury decides who is most likely to benefit from YCA management. This number can range from two (as was the case in '80) to nine (in '86). In 1975, there were none at all.
Once an artist is chosen, YCA takes him or her under its wing altogether. ``We really live with the artists in terms of their professional lives over a long time,'' Wadsworth explains, ``not only getting them engagements, but talking with them about [those engagements], finding out how things went, finding out what else they can do to improve in some way if they've needed to.''
Each artist stays on for at least two years. Some artists stay on much longer, until commercial management signs them up. They are presented in the New York and Washington series and travel to many of the other 40 cities. Beyond that, many concert organizations around the country call YCA for artists: YCA's bookings outside the prescribed series run at around 500 or more a year.
YCA also arranges mini-residencies. The designated artist will go to the host organization, give a mini-recital, talk with the audiences, give seminars, master classes, general ``rap'' sessions, whatever the host organization feels will benefit its community best. And this gives the young artist experience in articulating aspects of his craft and being natural in front of audiences.
YCA clearly helps its artists grow as individuals as well as musicians. Wadsworth is delighted that a real YCA alumni association now exists. ``As the artists keep in touch with each other and are aware of what other people are doing, it has created all kinds of new opportunities.'' Mr. Ax has joined the board of directors. Mr. Zukerman is available in an advisory capacity -- even helping to plan the program for the forthcoming benefit gala.
Some of the YCA alumni end up in the most unusual places. Cellist Toby Saks has founded the Seattle Chamber Music Festival. Paula Robison is artistic director of the Chamber Music Concerts at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C . Paul Meyer, the 18-year-old clarinetist, has just joined the Paris Opera Orchestra as principal cellist. And so it goes.
Without YCA, it would be harder for these special talents to get going in that perishable time between graduation from music school and the establishment of a professional career, ``which means,'' in Wadsworth's words, ``that they are paid to play!
``It's not the number of concerts or the income -- that certainly is very important -- but the experience of touring, playing, and earning money, and making a reputation as a performer. That's what starts a career.''
And Susan Wadsworth continues to see to it that an elite group of remarkable talent have as helpful and caring an organization as possible to guide them on that special path.