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Musical roots help Ayer student grow into role with Boston Youth Symphony

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AYER — When the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra celebrates the 10th anniversary of its Opera Program with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”on Jan 29, 3 p.m. in Harvard University’s Sanders Theater, one of the musicians in the orchestra will be a percussionist from Ayer.

Leigh Wilson, 15, was an eighth grader in Ayer when he joined the BYSO. Now in his junior year at Boston University Academy, his musical roots date back to childhood. His dad plays bass and his mom plays bassoon, Leigh said in a recent interview. “They started me on piano when I was 5.”

His parents encouraged him to stick with it, Leigh said. Now, he plays many other instruments as well as piano. “Tympani is the main one,” he said. Others include snare and bass drums, cymbals, xylophone, bells and triangle, which “isn’t as easy as it looks.”

Besides his early learning experience, Leigh also credits joining the former Ayer Middle School Band “with Ms. Fletcher” for fostering his continued interest in music. “That was fun,” he said.

Outside school, he played in the Nashoba Concert Band, Leigh said, starting in seventh grade.

Now, besides BYSO, he’s in the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, Leigh said, adding that he also participates in school-based activities such as the debating club. No sports, though. He used to play soccer and wishes he could find space for it in his busy schedule but there isn’t enough time, he said.

For example, traveling to school in Boston from his home in Ayer by commuter rail takes two hours each way. He leaves at 5:17 a.m. and gets home around 6:30 p.m., most days, Leigh said. Weekends, too, are spoken for. BYSO meets on Sunday, he said, from noon to six. Basically, all day.

Leigh worked his way up through several levels to the top tier before he could play in the BYSO’s Opera Orchestra , which is challenging but worth it. “It has its own challenges,” he explained. For example, with singers, the orchestra functions “like a big piano… you follow them instead of a tempo or beat,” he said. “It’s a different style and I like it a lot.”

Erin Ianni, Director of Marketing and Public Relations for the BYSO, called the long standing Opera Program one of the 59-year-old organization’s greatest achievements. Performing a full opera is an “absolutely remarkable and rare accomplishment” for a youth orchestra and an “exciting opportunity” for BYSO students to “work with professional singers, a chorus and a production crew,” she said.

According to the group’s website, the BYSO has branched out into many new “artistic activities” since its foundation in 1958, including Opera and a wind ensemble formed in 2006. Serving nearly 500 students across New England, it is recognized as “one of the finest youth orchestras in the country.”

BYSO highlights over the recent past include collaborating on a concert series with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2009. In 2004, a BYSO group performed at St. Petersburg’s famed Shostakovitch Hall. In 2003, the BYSO received the Commonwealth Award in Education.

Asked what drew him to the BYSO, Leigh said he enjoyed playing and practicing in a group with friends and that playing “in an ensemble” was a turning point. ” It really piqued my interest,” he said.

While the BYSO can be a demanding extracurricular, like a music class or the school band, the commitment is part of the allure. “You have to do it and you make friends, too,” he said. “It’s cool.”

So what comes next? College prep started this semester, Leigh said, but he hasn’t settled on a major yet. He’s contemplating a double major and there’s no doubt his future plans include music. Absent “another consuming interest,” Leigh indicated he might look to the stars.

“I took astronomy this fall,” he said.