When Yair Samet took over as music director of the San Jose Youth Symphony (SJYS) in 1994, there were between 40 and 50 young musicians involved with the symphony. Today, it numbers 350 musicians and is considered one of the finest youth symphonies on the West Coast. Celebrating its 60th anniversary, SJYS is kicking off the season with a concert featuring cellist Iris Liu, winner of the 2011 Young Artist Competition, on December 3. On the program are works by Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Gould and Liszt.

“When I started, I had to adjust the repertoire I chose very carefully,” says Samet. “Some kids were faking more than playing but I saw a lot of talent. The level just keeps going up,” he continues. “Every year they play harder and harder music. Their repertoire now is a standard orchestra repertoire.”

Highlights of the 60th season include a holiday concert; collaborations with local schools; guest soloists; and a gala celebration featuring world-renowned pianist Jon Nakamatsu performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The Philharmonic Orchestra, with “as many alumni members as can make it,” is performing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. “This is a huge piece that’s not easy at all,” says Samet. “It’s a reward knowing that we can now play at this level.”

The symphony has performed in some of the finest concert halls and festivals around the world, in countries including Germany, the Czech Republic, Japan, Spain and South America. There are former SJYS students in top universities nationally and abroad and several students have gone on to perform professionally in renowned orchestras and opera companies; but that is not Samet’s goal.

“My goal is not necessarily to see everyone become professional musician,” he says. “We do it to give everyone a complete education. Just knowing that they’ve been through the experience and gotten the opportunity is good enough.”

Samet stresses the importance of music in human development and believes that every child who expresses an interest in music should be given the opportunity to learn. To that end, SJYS has several programs that are geared toward providing instruments and lessons to students that may not have the opportunity otherwise. One program, Music Matters, provides introductory group lessons to students in elementary and middle schools. SJYS also arranges tuition and private lesson scholarships for symphony members whose families can’t cover the costs. “We don’t let money be a reason why a student can’t study music,” says Samet.

Samet attributes a great deal of the symphony’s success to the board, the parents and the volunteers. “We used to be under the old San Jose Symphony and when they went bankrupt in 2001, we were supposed to fold with them,” he says. “I said ‘Absolutely no way, especially with cuts to music in schools.’ There were parents who were as committed as I was,” he continues, “and in a time when more than a few orchestras have been folding around the world, the youth orchestra was able to grow and expand.”

“For the students, everything is new and fresh,” says Samet. “I can tell in rehearsals how they are absolutely taken with the music. The hope is to keep growing,” he continues. “We believe in the existence of talent in every individual and want to provide this opportunity to as many kids as possible.”