The day Toronto composer Jordan Pal learned he was the National Youth Orchestra of Canada’s 2014 RBC Foundation Emerging Composer-in-Residence was unforgettable: news of his appointment landed just as he was bringing home his newborn child. Several happy, if sleepless, weeks later Pal was deep into writing the NYOC-commissioned work that will premiere and be recorded during the orchestra’s summer 2014 season. With a piece on the summer repertoire of Boris Brott’s National Academy Orchestra of Canada – a composition premiered by the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra in 2012 – Pal is hyper-aware of the integral role so many youth orchestras now play in the life of Canadian composers.

“Our mandate is to bring fresh ideas from young composers to our professional training organization.” – The NYOC’s Barbara Smith

And while Pal has written for prestigious professional ensembles, the NYOC commission is not without challenges. “It’s a 104-person orchestra, so it’s tricky for them to find repertoire that uses everyone – percussionists, two harps, full strings, winds in fours, you name it,” he says. While the NYOC may continue to commission established composers, executive director Barbara Smith says the shift to the composer-in-residence program “fits nicely with our mandate – to bring fresh ideas from young composers to our professional training organization.”

Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra artistic director Dinuk Wijeratne, also an active composer and performer, said the NSYO has long been committed to commissioning works by Atlantic composers; Derek Charke’s Concerto Grosso, for example, “was a fantastic piece, written with a lot of savvy for the youth orchestra,” Wijeratne says.

“When you look at pre-existing works, the majority are written for pro orchestras,” he continues. “I have a list of people whose music I would like to play but have to find pieces that are suitable.” Last year NSYO performed the late Malcolm Forsyth’s Natal Landscapes, and next season’s repertoire includes Andrew Staniland’s Voyageur. Wijeratne is also excited about the NSYO’s emerging composer competition, open to Canadian undergrads enrolled in a degree program: “We really hit the ground running last season with Roydon Tse, who wrote a fresh piece for this past season, and this year’s winner is Joseph Glaser, also from UBC.”

Many youth orchestra conductors also compose. This past May, the Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra’s intermediate orchestra premiered a new work by its conductor Jin Zhang, who has written works for previous VYSO seasons. And the West Island Youth Symphony Orchestra (in Montreal) has performed works by the likes of Denis Gougeon and Norman Symonds, as well as compositions by its artistic director Stewart Grant.

The New Brunswick Youth Orchestra, nearing its 50th anniversary, not only records, but also regularly performs internationally. This July, the group delivers the world premiere of the commissioned work A Dream of Dawn by busy Toronto composer Kevin Lau at the Summa Cum Laude International Youth Music Competition in Vienna, Austria, on the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I.

“Our thought was the work needed to commemorate the event,” says NBYO president Ken MacLeod . “The piece will become the theme of our whole season, and we’ll perform it at all our concert locations across New Brunswick.”