Maestro Ernst H. Katz

Seven Decades of Dedication to Youth in Music

Maestro Ernst H. Katz began changing the lives of young people through classical music when he founded his symphony orchestra on January 22, 1937 in Los Angeles. For over seven decades, he dedicated himself to the Jr. Philharmonic Orchestra without accepting public or private contributions and without charging membership or audition fees. Following his motto “Give Youth A Chance to be Heard,” he touched the lives of thousands of musicians from diverse social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds.

The Colburn School is proud to announce the Maestro Ernst H. Katz Chair of Conducting Studies, to be held by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Named through the remarkable generosity of the T. Robert Greene Foundation, the Maestro Ernst H. Katz Chair of Conducting Studies will recognize and celebrate the 72-year legacy of Maestro Katz and the importance of training the next generation of young artists.

“We are on this earth not just to leave a footprint in the sand, we have to leave something very tangible. And by working with young people, you couldn’t ask for a more thrilling, thrilling time in your life.” — Ernst Katz

About Maestro Ernst H. Katz

Ernst Katz—son of Russian immigrants who by his teens had made a name for himself as a concert pianist—nurtured thousands of young musicians during 72 years as the founding conductor of the Jr. Philharmonic Orchestra of California. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a young Ernst Katz believed the depressed city of Los Angeles needed the uplifting power of music. Katz formed what he originally called the Little Symphony in 1937 with four youths and built it into a 120-member orchestra. He never missed a practice or performance.

Los Angeles Times obituary states, “The 10,000 youths who have performed in the orchestra since its founding were charged no fees to participate. If they needed instruments, Katz lent them. If they couldn’t afford the tuxedos required for performances, Katz paid for them. He financed the organization almost entirely out of his own pocket, conducting free public concerts at such venues as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Shrine Auditorium. ‘Everyone said I was crazy’ to launch a symphony during the Depression, Katz recalled in a 1996 LA Times interview. But he was determined to give youths ‘a chance to be heard.’ That idea became the orchestra’s motto.”

Katz taught not only musicianship and the historical context of the pieces they were learning, but also lessons about individual responsibility, including the importance of being on time and attending all rehearsals. Katz instilled the discipline and structure that enabled young people to attain success in their lives. He was also a mentor to his musicians—many described him as the grandfather that they never had.

The orchestra defied any preconceived notions about both the cultural diversity of Los Angeles and the nature of the orchestral community. Katz broke barriers, admitting young women to his orchestra from its inception. He also combined classical and popular music in the concerts, a practice that was unheard of then, but is now widely accepted.

Today, numerous youth orchestras provide young musicians with opportunities for artistic development, musical education, and performance experiences. Yet, during the era of the Jr. Philharmonic Orchestra, there was nothing comparable. The orchestra became one of the longest-standing youth orchestras in the country.

One of the most highly anticipated events of the year was the Jr. Philharmonic Orchestra’s annual Concert Spectacular, the culmination of its concert season, which featured the Celebrity Battle of Batons, a star-studded competition allowing many of Hollywood’s best-loved characters to lead the ensemble. Celebrity guests who appeared on the podium included Pat Boone, Chevy Chase, Jimmy Durante, Buddy Ebsen, Henry Fonda, Richard Pryor, Mickey Rooney “Weird Al” Yankovic, and more, including Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.

Remembering Maestro Katz

“When I was in the first violin section of Maestro Katz’s orchestra I was also a boarding student at Black-Foxe Military School in Hollywood, and going to rehearsals afforded me respite from military discipline. My most vivid memory is that while we were rehearsing Sibelius Finlandia Maestro Katz wanted more warmth from the sound and said “This is the most beautiful melody ever written.” I have never forgotten!”
Jorge Mester, Former Music Director of the Pasadena Symphony, Louisville Orchestra, Aspen Music Festival, Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra, and Naples Philharmonic

“He gets out of the orchestra what he’s feeling in his heart. It’s a wonderful, magical spell he casts over people.”
Richard Sherman, part of the Academy Award-winning Sherman Brothers songwriting duo, best known for “It’s a Small World After All” (credit: The Story of Dr. Ernst Katz and the Jr. Philharmonic Orchestra)

“Every one of us who was in the orchestra then remembers that time. We remember learning those pieces as young people. We had the proper kind of training that was provided for by Mr. Katz.”
Leonard Slatkin, Music Director Laureate of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Conductor Laureate of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (credit: The Story of Dr. Ernst Katz and the Jr. Philharmonic Orchestra)

“He was like a musical Mother Teresa. He had that kind of passion and personality to completely sacrifice his other interests to enrich and nurture the lives of young people through music.”
Pat Boone, celebrity singer, actor, and composer who appeared on the Jr. Philharmonic’s debut album (credit: LA Times)

  • Maestro Katz with Donald O'Connor, May Mann, and Gregory Peck
  • Jr. Philharmonic Orchestra at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 2005
  • Maestro Katz at the piano
  • Maestro Katz in 1987, commemorating the orchestra's 50th anniversary
  • Receiving the Points of Light medal from President George W. Bush, 2002
  • Maestro Katz with Dick van Dyke and Richard Sherman
  • Maestro Katz with Ernest Gold, Meredith Willson, Ferde Grofe, and Gary S. Greene
  • Maestro Katz with Isaac Stern
  • Maestro Katz with Jack Benny
  • Maestro Katz with Julie Andrews
  • Maestro Katz with Mary Pickford and California Governor Goodwin Knight
  • Maestro Katz with May Mann and Jayne Mansfield
  • 003-Katz with May Mann, John Smith, Natalie Wood
  • 003-Katz with May Mann, Mae West, Jack Oakie
  • 003-Katz with Meredith Willson
  • Maestro Katz with Richard and Robert Sherman
  • Maestro Katz with sister Silvia Katz Greene, 1938
  • Maestro Katz with Supervisor Ed Edelman
  • Maestro Katz with Tom Snyder and Buddy Ebsen
  • Maestro Katz with violinist Mischa Elman
  • Maestro Katz at the podium
  • Maestro Katz