Report: NYO-USA

Mike Lawson • Features • January 21, 2014

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Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra trains the USA’s most promising musical ambassadors

Valery Gerviev conducts the NYO-USA. Photo by Chris Lee.

Limitless potential fills the air these days at Carnegie Hall. Why? The National Youth Orchestra USA, which celebrated its inaugural season in the summer of 2013, has already established itself as a premier training and performance program for the country’s finest young musicians. And in terms of cultivating more wonderful talent, the best is yet to come.

NYO-USA serves as both a rare educational opportunity and a stellar representation of American musical ability. Through Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, 120 exceptionally gifted young musicians, aged 16-19, are selected from an online audition process for a two-week, tuition-free intensive musical residency that combines a rehearsal period with world-class conductors and symphony musicians and related study of musical technique and cultural history. The young musicians then set out on an international concert tour. In 2013, the NYO-USA played to audiences at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, the Great Hall in Moscow, Russia, the Mariinsky II in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Royal Albert Hall in London, UK. They were performing under world-class maestro Valery Gergiev (musical director of the Mariinsky and principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra) and with esteemed violinist Joshua Bell. Clearly, the entire experience served as a milestone for these young people in terms of developing their musical talent and abilities, and acting as impressive ambassadors on behalf of the U.S. to appreciative international audiences.


Inspiration and Aspiration

From its inception, the NYO-USA has sought to educate by combining the highest possible achievement in musical aptitude with self-discovery. Inspired by the fact that the U.S. boasts many gifted young musicians who deserve a place to both hone and showcase their skills – much as youth orchestras in countries such as Great Britain offer such a platform – the program has been geared heavily toward collaboration from the outset. The Weill Institute determined that it could serve the ensemble’s young instrumentalists best by exposing them to some of the world’s finest music educators, while at the same time ensuring they’d play with peers from all over the country. “NYO-USA provides a great opportunity for young talent to learn from and work with world class conductors and soloists. We wanted to provide them a deeply rewarding experience, and we really feel we hit the mark,” says Doug Beck, director of artist training programs at Carnegie Hall.

Ronald O. Perelman, Marina Keller French, and Sting and his wife Trudie Styler enthusiastically joined the project as its advisory board. The Weill Institute then secured the participation of top musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Houston Symphony, and the Pittsburgh Symphony. Under the direction of orchestra director James Ross, the participating professional musicians were concertmaster Robert Chen, along with Alison Harney, Carrie Dennis, John Sharp, Jeffrey Turner, Jeffrey Khaner, William Short, Elaine Douvas, Ricardo Morales, William VerMeulen, David Krauss, R. Douglas Wright, Alan Baer, Cynthia Yen, and Jauvon Gilliam.

To select and develop young musicians who would be the right fit, a very specific audition process commenced. Musicians could apply on violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone, bass trombone, tuba, harp, percussion (including timpani), and orchestral piano/keyboard. To best assess each applicant’s qualities, both an audition video and essay were required; the program looked specifically for technical skill, musicianship, passion, collaborative spirit, and intellectual interest. Applicants were also selected based on their desire to travel internationally and by demonstrating maturity on a personal and social level.

Unsurprisingly, the program saw a deluge of excellent candidates. “We received hundreds and hundreds of online applications,” says Sarah Johnson, director of the Weill Institute. “In reviewing the applicants, what we saw was so encouraging. There is wonderful young musical talent from all parts of the country, stars in every state.”

A delightful bonus the program directors discovered was the fact they truly liked the applicants on a very human level. “During the selection process, we saw that our applicants had such wonderful, bright personalities,” adds Beck. “So many young people showed us how thoughtful they were, how curious they were about the world.” Although final decisions were tough, the applicant pool was narrowed down, and an orchestra was selected. Members represented states from California to Florida, from Alaska to New Jersey, and every conceivable place in between; the young musicians subsequently made their way to Purchase College in Westchester County, N.Y. in June of 2013.


The Learning Curve

The NYO-USA in preparation for their debut tour, July 2013. Photo by Chris Lee.

At Purchase, training was multi-faceted. Student activities were overseen by Ross, who served as the students’ conductor for a complex and rewarding rehearsal period. The musicians learned the artistically and technically demanding pieces “Magiya” by Sean Shepherd, Tschikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and Shortakovich’s Symphony #9. “Twenty-four hours in, it was the first time our orchestra played together,” recalls Beck. “This was the centerpiece, really, of all of our preparation and hopes for the NYO. After our musicians had finished playing the piece, the expressions on their faces was, collectively, total amazement! You could tell they were thinking how wonderful they all sounded playing together. It was evident that they had never had such an experience playing with wonderful peers in this way, and had never heard themselves sound as they now did. What that meant to each young musician, in terms of seeing the confidence it inspired, meant so much to me.”

Intensive rehearsals were interspersed with related study and seminars, offering instruction on composition, conducting, improvisation, yoga for musicians, and the cultural study of Russia, in preparation for the travel ahead. Johnson was delighted to see how quickly the musicians picked up this curriculum model, and believes it can be very adaptable to many classrooms. “Clearly, this is a highly aspirational program, in terms of offering our young musicians very unique opportunities for study and travel,” says Sarah. “I think what other educators might take from NYO, in terms of appropriately guiding their own students, is the concept of encouragement: to set the highest bar educationally that you can set, and do everything possible to help your students to meet it.”

Beck concurs that the NYO-USA musicians, and highly motivated music students as a whole, will rise to challenges set before them. “I’d encourage any music educator to make their students’ experience as rich as possible, and as broad as possible,” says Doug. “As a young person learns to play his or her instrument as well as he or she can, that student should be thinking about his or her physical body and how to develop him or herself physically to become a better musician. That young person should be learning about composers, practicing as much as possible each day. As a teacher, I’d recommend guiding students toward these challenges, plus broadening out the material you’re teaching them and the information you’re exposing them to every week.”


Performance Perfection

The official NYO-USA portrait. Photo by Chris Lee

On July 4, NYO-USA had its first performance in Washington, D.C., which was incredibly well received. They then moved on to lauded concerts abroad through the remainder of July into August. Johnson was tremendously moved as she watched her young charges navigate their places musically, and literally, in the world. “I had assumed we would be working with incredibly inspired and motivated students before I met our musicians,” she says. “I must say, however, that when I came to know them, and observe them as we toured, I was so impressed at what really lovely human beings our musicians were, as well! These are 16-to-19-year-olds under a lot of pressure – traveling internationally, playing and learning in very challenging circumstances – and they were unfailingly cheerful, lovely to us, and lovely to each other. They were collegial to a degree that many adults wouldn’t be able to manage! It made my experience with the NYO even more special.”

NYO-USA will be back for its second season this coming summer. Orchestra members who participated in its first year and wish to return are allowed to do so for three years in total, and it’s expected that many instrumentalists will take part again. New applicants are also being strongly encouraged to apply, and will go through the same selection process as was held for the previous season. For 2014, both new and returning orchestra members will work with world-class conductor David Robertson and violinist Gil Shaham, mastering pieces by Samuel Carl Adams, Leonard Bernstein, Britten, and Mussorgsky. After training at Purchase, NYO-USA will embark on a coast-to-coast tour of the United States lasting a total of 15 days.

The program’s goals, as ever, will be geared toward helping participants realize their maximum musical and personal enrichment. “Ultimately, our whole department determined together that, in the big picture, talented young musicians need and deserve an extraordinary musical experience,” says Sarah Johnson. “We wanted to provide a place for them to be able to be a great representation of American musical talent – and we intend to continue doing just that!”


Lisa Mulcahy is a freelance writer who has contributed to many magazines, including Stage Directions, Redbook, Glamour, and Marie Claire. The author of numerous best-selling theater books, her latest, A Life In Acting, will be released by Skyhorse Publishing later this year.

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