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Utah is a rich environment for string players. "You can almost go to any turnoff going south [on I-15] and find a community orchestra, and there are at least five prize-winning violin makers," said Jack Ashton, who has been mentoring many of Utah's top string players for more than 30 years.

Ashton, who played violin in the Utah Symphony for 49 years, started Young Artist Chamber Players in 1985 "because there were so many good young players who didn't have the opportunity to play in an orchestra or group that was really challenging for them," he said.

The group performs throughout the academic year, including a concert March 20 at Westminster College's Vieve Gore Concert Hall.

"It's kind of one-of-a-kind in this area because it's not a full symphony," Ashton said, though the group does bring in woodwind players sometimes when repertoire calls for it.

The string ensemble's hundreds of alumni include Utah Symphony associate principal cellist Matthew Johnson, Utah Symphony violinist Becca Moench, jazz bassist Matt Larson, cellist Steven Sharp Nelson of Piano Guys fame, cellist Matt Zalkind of the University of Denver music faculty, pianist-composer Marshall McDonald and film-score composer Chad Cannon.

YACP plays a wide range of repertoire, including new music written for the group. "They've learned to like 20th-century music instead of enduring it," Ashton noted. Members of the Westminster College faculty, such as pianist Karlyn Bond and Utah Symphony violinist Yuki MacQueen, occasionally appear as soloists.

The group also travels to Europe regularly. This summer, members of YACP and a few alumni, performing as Rocky Mountain Camerata, will play in Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Salzburg, Paris and other cities.

Bassist Justin Morgan played in YACP all three years of high school. "It was an amazing experience," said Morgan, now a bass performance major at the University of Utah. "The level of playing in the group was the highest I had ever been exposed to."

Morgan has plenty of basis for comparison — he played in 11 orchestras during his senior year at Taylorsville High. "Everyone there is extremely committed to what they're doing," he said of YACP. "My eyes were opened to how challenging but also how interesting and how detailed chamber music could be."

That isn't to say that beginning violinists should be afraid to audition. The YACP organization includes three other orchestras for younger and less-experienced players. "The organization caters to every level of musician," Morgan said. "Their mission is to take musicians at any level and raise the bar but also make the students very passionate."

Becky Hesterman, board secretary, got involved with the organization when her now-grown children were members. "I figured I'd stay with Jack until he retired, thinking it would be a couple more years," she said. "That was 10 years ago, and he still is going strong. …

"Jack is more than a teacher, he's a mentor. Jack is just a gem." —

Young artists

The Young Artist Chamber Players will perform Telemann's Concerto for Two Violas, Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and other works.

When • Sunday, March 20, 7:30 p.m.

Where • Vieve Gore Concert Hall, 1250 E. 1700 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • Free, but donations will be accepted to help defray travel costs for a European tour