Thank You for the Music
Sacramento Youth Symphony director and conductor retires
By Jessica Laskey
Michael Neumann has been thinking about the serenity prayer a lot lately: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Neumann has retired after 40 years as artistic director and conductor of the Premier Orchestra of the Sacramento Youth Symphony, an orchestral youth organization that started in 1956. What began as an ensemble of 55 youth musicians has grown into an award-winning powerhouse of 400 members from all over the region.
“Forty years seemed like a really good round number,” says Neumann, who joined the organization in 1979. “That’s a lot of time to put into one organization. Looking at the big picture, I wanted to go out on the top of my game.”
Neumann has certainly done just that. During his tenure, the Sacramento Youth Symphony grew from just one orchestra to now multiple orchestras and several ensembles that offer programming year-round. Under Neumann’s direction, the Premier Orchestra—which houses the organization’s most advanced youth musicians—has toured internationally to China, Europe, Costa Rica, Finland, Russia, England, Scotland and Wales, and won top prizes in international competitions like the Youth Music Festival in Vienna.
The Arden Park resident has also won numerous awards himself, including a fellowship from the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and recognition by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. He was also named Arts Educator of the Year by the Arts & Business Council in 2009.
He’s guest conducted several orchestras across the country, and conducted and adjudicated multiple youth honor ensembles, including the California All-State Orchestra. He’s also responsible for the immense feats of musical engineering that were the Symphony of 1000 and Symphony of 2000, at which that number of musicians took the stage at the Memorial Auditorium to perform a one-hour concert.
Neumann was destined for musical success from an early age. He took violin lessons as a child in South Africa—where his parents landed after fleeing Nazi Germany—from the great-great-granddaughter of composer Antonin Dvorak. He won full scholarships to the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, where he earned his Bachelor of Music in violin performance and a Master of Music in orchestral conducting. But his proudest achievements to date have more to do with his artistic legacy than his accolades.
“I’m very grateful that I could have such an impact on so many young people,” says Neumann, who will remain the symphony’s artistic director emeritus now that he’s handed over the Premier Orchestra conductor’s baton to newcomer Ryan Murray. “It’s life changing to be part of an orchestra. It’s not just about the music, it’s also about learning life lessons—commitment, punctuality, honesty, accountability, responsibility—that can be applied to anything. To be able to provide that to well over 1,000 kids is incredible.”
The feeling is mutual. The organization had planned a retirement roast and toast for its beloved director, but the pandemic forced a rescheduling. But Neumann isn’t concerned. He knows that what really counts—his emotional and artistic contributions to the community at large—will remain long after his retirement. In the meantime, he’s looking forward to “decompressing” and doing some things his schedule didn’t allow during the past four decades, like gardening and traveling.
“There comes a time in everybody’s life when you realize you’re getting older,” the 71-year-old says. “That’s just the way nature works. But I’ve done a lot of things and I think this is a very healthy move. It’s time to let go.”
For more information about Michael Neumann’s Retirement Roast & Toast, visit sacramentoyouthsymphony.org.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.