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."
Gatto honed his baton skills conducting the Pittsburgh Civic Orchestra, Pittsburgh Savoyards and the short-lived National Negro Opera Company. He also co-founded the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra.
After relocating to Baltimore in 1963 to work as an assistant conductor for operas at the Peabody Institute, Gatto decided to launch the Maryland Youth Symphony Orchestra. The ensemble performed at various spots around town before setting up base at CCBC, where Gatto was a faculty member.
Ensemble size was around 80 early on, closer to 60 in recent years; musicians must audition for Gatto. Tuition from those accepted ($450 currently) has provided the main financial support for the enterprise.
The Maryland Youth Symphony has always set a tough schedule for its musicians — four-hour rehearsals on Saturday afternoons, September through May.
"We'd be in the orchestra room, and it would be beautiful outside," said Chad Goodman, 24, who played trumpet in the group when he was in his early teens. "I'd wonder what my friends were doing. But that fades quickly when you get sucked into the music you're making. We all looked forward to Saturdays."
Goodman, whose father had played trumpet in the orchestra years earlier, was "looking for a group that would really challenge me" when he auditioned.
"The first rehearsal was the first time I ever got goose bumps from music," he said. "We were working on Dvorak's 'New World' Symphony. That was a very profound experience for me. It shaped my musical future, you could say."
That future included earning music degrees, playing trumpet professionally and, lately, conducting the new San Francisco-based Elevate Ensemble, which mixes classics with works by local composers.
"I look back to my time with Maestro Gatto for inspiration," Goodman said. "You would swear that every piece he was conducting was his favorite. I didn't think one person could love so much music. And off the podium, he was so easy to talk to."
On the podium, Gatto has long been known for his forceful personality.
Last week's rehearsal was punctuated by occasional foot-stomping, fist-clenching and, especially, ardent pleas for "piano" — the Italian musical term for playing softly.
Goodman remembers the days when Gatto himself sounded anything but "piano."
"If you weren't playing what he felt the music deserved, he could get loud for sure," Goodman said. "And he'd be yelling at you in Italian, which was hilarious and intimidating at the same time."
Among the many young musicians who experienced Gatto's podium style up close is Jeff Silberschlag, a widely experienced trumpeter and conductor.
"I joined the orchestra when I was 12 — 47 years ago — and played until I was 18," Silberschlag said. "Both my sons played in the orchestra, too. He turned out a good share of people who went on to careers in music and exposed a lot of people to high culture. He fulfilled a really important mission."
That mission was set to end with Gatto's swan song. The board of directors decided last month to shut the organization down after Saturday's concert (several alumni, including Silberschlag, are planning to participate in the performance). But the decision, greeted with lamenting posts on the orchestra's Facebook page, was reversed last week.
Coming to the rescue is the Chesapeake Orchestra, a Southern Maryland-based professional ensemble led by Silberschlag. He said that the Chesapeake Orchestra plans to keep the youth symphony going more or less the same way and in the same general location.
Among those happy to hear that the organization plans to continue is Deidra Bryant, whose 12-year-old son, Gerrell Mills, plays cello in the orchestra.
"I wanted to find a group for him with some history in it," said Bryant, who volunteers to stay after rehearsals to help with tasks like clearing the stage. "I was so impressed by this orchestra. We come a little way each week — from Odenton — but it's so worth it."
It has been worth it, too, for Drew Davis, the 17-year-old principal cellist. He plans to be a doctor but expects to keep up with the cello. He expects to remember Gatto, too.
"Maestro is one of the most important people I've met," Davis said. "He's [more than five] times as old as me and has more energy than I'll ever have."
That energy was evident when Gatto wrapped up last week's rehearsal with a run-through of Verdi's "La Forza del Destino" overture. His face reflected each stormy turn in the music, and the players made a valiant effort to respond with similar expressiveness.
"You've done a great job today," the conductor said when the rehearsal ended. "Thank you very much."
As he stepped off the stage, Gatto smiled broadly.
"This keeps me young," he said. "I love music so much."
Saturday's by-invitation concert is sold out. For more information on the Maryland Youth Symphony Orchestra, go to myso.info.