Michael Neumann

Recipient of the 2005 Award for Outstanding Contributions to Youth Music Education

“Energy never lies,”

Michael Neumann often tells his students. From the moment he first picked up the violin, he knew this to be true. For Maestro Neumann, his success is his proof.

Neumann’s love of music has been a part of his life since his youth. As a child in South Africa, his parents often took him to concerts, inspiring Neumann to try his hand at the violin. It was there that he first was exposed to the lack of music in schools, which forced him to learn largely through private lessons.

While a student in high school, Neumann pestered his teachers until they allowed him to conduct the orchestra. His talent shined through. After one particular performance, the superintendent of music in San Francisco approached Neumann to inquire how long he had studied conducting. He had not studied conducting at all.

As a young man, he attended the prestigious Lowell High School in San Francisco, where he served as concertmaster. Later, at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, he earned both a bachelor’s degree in violin performance and a master’s degree in orchestral conducting. He served as Assistant Conductor of the Birmingham Symphony in Alabama until 1978.

In 1979, he was appointed Assistant Conductor of the Sacramento Symphony and, in 1989, was promoted to the position of Associate Conductor, one he held until 1993, when the Symphony disbanded for reorganization.

Neumann also has been the passion behind the music of the Sacramento Youth Symphony (SYS) since 1979. The SYS was founded in 1956 as a 55-member youth orchestra, originally with the Sacramento Symphony Association. The SYS was incorporated as an independent, nonprofit organization in 1991. Through Neumann’s leadership, the SYS has expanded from a small, largely ignored stepchild of the now-defunct Sacramento Symphony into three orchestras. He has initiated academy classes, held annual concert competitions and guided the Premier Orchestra in receiving international recognition, traveling to Vienna in Austria; Beijing, Nanjing, Wuxi, and Jinan in China; Tuscany in Italy; and Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Bahia, Ouro Preto, and Belo Horizonte, with a performance in the famous Teatro de Manaus, in Brazil.

“I remember Michael speaking of his dream for the expansion of the SYS in 1984, to include an orchestra for very young players—the Junior Symphony —and the orchestra for intermediate players—the Academic Orchestra,” says Gerald Lopes, former Assistant Conductor of the SYS and professional musician. “He has realized his dream and continued an extraordinary musical experience for the members of the Sacramento Youth Symphony.”

Neumann’s tireless dedication to the SYS was integral to its success. “A conductor’s duties begin long before an orchestra meets for its first rehearsal, but it is in working with the orchestra that is the critical test,” says Mark Sheldon, a professional musician. “[Neumann] has that rare ability to tailor his handling of the orchestra to the level of the musicians in it and regularly elicits performances of a quality that exceed any reasonable expectation one might have had of the performing musicians.”

Aside from Neumann’s abilities as a conductor, he has established lasting relationships in the community. “Michael has not only regularly churned out superb performances, he has built music organizations that will continue to serve the community long after he has gone,” says Sheldon. “I can count on less than all the fingers of one hand the conductors I will drop whatever I’m doing to play for. Michael is one of those few.”

Neumann, who takes his role in the lives of youth very seriously, expresses how honored he is to nurture the musical experiences of young musicians. “There is no doubt in my mind that music plays a very key role in a student’s development,” he says. “Even for those who do not pursue music as a profession, the camaraderie, persistence, dedication and responsibility learned through music are wonderful ingredients that make up the nature of any person.” His students agree. Eric Gorfain, a former student, says Neumann was instrumental in his musical development. “As conductor of the SYS, Maestro Neumann was responsible for exposing the orchestra members to standard repertoire that helped direct many of us to professional levels of proficiency.”

Jane Clayson, another one of Neumann’s former violin students, went on to co-host The Early Show with Bryant Gumbel. During the show, she named Neumann as her most inspirational teacher. For Neumann, this was an extremely gratifying experience.

Neumann understands the importance of a mentor for young musicians. Jack Pereira, his high-school orchestra teacher, believed in him and presented him with opportunities to conduct the orchestra. During one of those performances, Neumann looked down at the score before beginning and noticed a note that was scribbled inside. It was from Pereira. “He said he thought I was extremely talented, and that I’d go anywhere I wanted to go,” recalls Neumann. “I still have that score.”

“[Michael Neumann] is a man who shapes the future,” says Lopes. “Ask him about it.” Sure enough, shaping the future is in the works. “I want to make a difference in the community, and leave it a better place than I found it,” Neumann says. He recalls a time a few years ago during a performance at Hiram Johnson in Sacramento. “The kids really rose to the occasion that night,” he says. “I remember it was Brahms, Symphony #1. I was so moved I actually broke down in tears at the podium, and the audience just started clapping. They felt it, too.”

Indeed, energy does not lie.