Angelo Gatto conducts the Maryland Youth Symphony Orchestra during a rehearsal of Cesar Franck's Symphony in D Minor. (Tim Smith/Baltimore Sun Video)

Angelo Gatto spoke softly and carried a small baton, but the slender 92-year-old conductor had no trouble getting respect from the musicians of the Maryland Youth Symphony Orchestra rehearsing for Saturday's milestone concert.

The milestone is Gatto's final concert as music director of the orchestra, which he founded 50 years ago. During that time, he mentored an estimated 3,000 students from the area, inspiring many to pursue musical careers. Alumni can be found in such major orchestras as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and on podiums leading ensembles of their own.

To the players rehearsing at the Center for the Arts on the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, Gatto offered his trademark instruction: "Don't just play notes. Anybody can play notes."

Then, pointing to his heart, he added: "Feel it here."

With a flick of the baton, his downbeat had the mostly high school-age players digging into a decidedly adult composition, Cesar Franck's technically tricky, heavily romantic Symphony in D minor.

If intonation was not totally uniform, articulation not totally in sync, there was plenty of spirit as the orchestra moved through the symphony, which Gatto conducted in the ensemble's inaugural concert in 1964.

"It's a rough work," Gatto said during a rehearsal break. "But these kids can do it. They work hard."

Over the decades, the Italian-born conductor has routinely challenged his musicians with a difficult repertoire. No watered-down arrangements for this group.

"I like working with young kids, because that's where everything starts," said Gatto, who created the orchestra because "I felt I had a duty to give kids what they weren't getting in school."

In 1964, Geoffrey Lapin enjoyed musical outlets in his orchestra at City College and an ensemble at Peabody Preparatory, but he wanted something more. When he heard about a new youth ensemble, he quickly auditioned.

"I was a crappy violin player then and sat in the last chair of the second violins, but it was great," says Lapin, 64. "I cherish those days. We had people in the orchestra who were the cream of the crop from all over the state."

After he left Baltimore for college, Lapin switched to cello; he has just completed his 43rd season with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

"There wasn't anybody like Angelo Gatto around in Baltimore then," Lapin said. "He inspired so many of us. It turned me into what I am. He had this European sensibility and a passionate love of music that he just drove into us. That drive he had is still with me."

After relinquishing the podium, Gatto will direct that drive to such things as giving private lessons to violin and viola students. And there are ideas for books he wants to write.

"He won't be slowing down much," said Margaret Gatto, 73, a pianist from England who married the conductor 30 years ago. "He has all these compositions he has written that need to be copyrighted."

The couple plan to remain in their longtime home in Glenwood in western Howard County.

Gatto made his way to this area via Pittsburgh, where he and his parents settled after leaving Italy when he was 6. There, he studied violin. He eventually landed work in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and wrote "The Mastery of Violin Technique," published in 1987.

But from the age of 8, when he picked up a stick and started pretending to conduct, Gatto felt a strong pull toward the podium, too. He went on to study conducting, as well as violin, at Duquesne University.

Gatto said his main mentor was brilliant Italian conductor Victor de Sabata, a frequent guest conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

"He insisted that every note had to 'sing,' " Gatto said. "He was unbelievable. They don't have conductors like that now."