The statistics are impressive. Since its first performance in 1990, the Asian Youth Orchestra (AYO) has given 227 concerts in 147 cities, reaching more than a million listeners - figures that will grow further when the orchestra's 2007 concert tour opens at the Cultural Centre on August 8. Starting in Hong Kong and ending in Tokyo, with whistle- stop visits to Shanghai, Hangzhou, Beijing, Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Kobe, Nagoya and Ebina, the AYO's three-week itinerary will pack in 18 performances. Bringing together 103 players from 10 countries is a musical and logistical challenge. Yet Richard Pontzious, the orchestra's founder and artistic director, has gone even further this year by offering local students masterclasses with the orchestra's coaches, many of them players in leading American orchestras. The masterclasses - in violin, viola, cello, flute, trumpet and conducting - are open to everyone, he says. 'This is a new programme that we proposed to the Arts Development Council, and they liked the idea,' Pontzious says. 'We think it will give youngsters a better understanding of who we are and what we do, even if they're not yet ready to audition for the AYO.' The 63-year old American not only supervises more than 1,000 auditions each year, but also conducts half the concerts. The philosophy behind his formation of the orchestra was 'to ignite a pride for what can be achieved by Asian musicians in Asia, while offering a positive influence on the brain and talent drain that continues to frustrate all Asian nations'. Pontzious says this mission to stem the outflow has been 'enormously successful'. 'It's not just that our Hong Kong members stay here and become members of the Sinfonietta and the Hong Kong Philharmonic,' he says. 'There's also a great cross- pollination. I couldn't imagine a few years ago that a Japanese individual would go and take a job with the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. She did that because of her AYO experience. And the only Malaysian members of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra are all former AYO members. This is a great reward for me, personally.' Keeping the orchestra going is no mean feat. The 50-year-old Australian Youth Orchestra, for example, received government funding in 2005 equivalent to more than HK$9 million, with an extra HK$13 million last year to assist its long-term sustainability. By contrast, the AYO relies on private and corporate sponsorship. This has meant having to raise about HK$200 million since it was formed. European ensembles - now called 'pre-professional' - also get support from the Federation of National Youth Orchestras, and there's a World Youth Orchestra, based in Italy. Hong Kong recently hosted three American youth orchestras in as many weeks - from Dallas, Vermont and the Chinese Youth Corps of New York. The scene isn't as well developed in Asia. The Southeast Asian Youth Orchestra (Sayo) gave its debut performance in Bangkok in 2003, and the Canton International Summer Music Academy (Cisma) met on the mainland for the first time in 2005. Pontzious sees the AYO as taking a leadership role in the further development of such opportunities. 'It's wonderful that kids can study with their individual teachers and school orchestras, then with Cisma and Sayo,' he says. 'This creates a pyramid in which every level prepares you for the next. We hope we're one step in that chain to promote a professional career.' With more than 100 performers, the AYO focuses mainly on large, Romantic works. Pontzious will share the podium with Okko Kamu, a guest conductor from Finland. 'Okko wants to do the Brahms First Symphony because he wants to get the players to really pull that sound from their instruments,' says Pontzious. 'I want to feature the talents of the older players, which is why I chose Mussorgsky's Pictures from an Exhibition.' There's more to the orchestra than just the performances. 'From the social and cultural side, it's wonderful that we've been able to bring musicians from the mainland and Taiwan together,' Pontzious says. 'It doesn't sound like much of an achievement today, but in the early years taking the orchestra on tour to Taiwan was a huge challenge. 'Music is only one part of what we do. We're a great social machine. Kids meet other students - all of them on a quest for excellence that carries over into whatever profession they may pursue.'