National Youth Orchestra’s musicians act as ‘ambassadors’ around the world

Chris Lee - James Ross, orchestra director, rehearsing with the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America at Purchase College, SUNY, July 2, 2013.

On Saturday night, an elite orchestra made up of the best young musicians across the country, led by conductor Valery Gergiev, will take the stage at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

It’s not the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. Nor is it the orchestra that was just honed at the National Orchestral Institute, held annually at the University of Maryland. It isn’t the New World Symphony. And it isn’t the NSO Summer Music Institute Orchestra, which this summer is bringing young musicians from 28 states and three countries to the Kennedy Center. That orchestra is playing the following night.

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No, the one-of-a-kind youth orchestra that’s coming here is called the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America; it was founded by Carnegie Hall, and it’s in its maiden season.

Our nation hardly lacks youth orchestras. There are six year-round organizations in the Washington area alone. Then there are the ensembles mentioned above, part of a bouquet of festival orchestras that draw students from across the country during the summer. Each has a slightly different mission. But none of them is doing what the National Youth Orchestra (NYO-USA) is doing: taking a bunch of talented kids on tour to some of the leading venues in the world — the Kennedy Center, the Proms in London, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory and the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg.

“It’s just creating something much bigger than I’ve ever been in before,” says Samuel Matzner, an 18-year-old violist from Arlington.

“There’s a great, great culture of youth orchestras in this country,” says Clive Gillinson, the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall in New York. “But none of them act, as a central, core part of their mission, as youth ambassadors for America around the world.”

Gillinson is looking to a different model: the kind of touring, high-visibility ensemble represented by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, or Europe’s Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, or the European Union Youth Orchestra. Or, more to the point, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, which Gillinson, a former cellist who played with it for more than two years, still remembers as “one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.”

There’s a certain idealism built into the idea of a youth orchestra; that’s part of its appeal. Youth orchestras offer a concrete vision of young people behaving in ways older people would like them to — working hard, dressing well (though the NYO-USA’s red, white and blue outfits with Converse sneakers are an exception) and immersed in great art.

Gillinson’s vision for the NYO-USA is certainly idealistic. He sees it as an elite body made up of “the very, very best young players in [the] country, bringing them together in a wa
y that everybody inspires everybody else.” It will epitomize a traditional, not to say antiquated, vision of cultural diplomacy, traveling each year to “a different part of the world, which is important to America’s relationships with the world.” (This year it’s Russia; then, after a tour of the United States next year, China the year after.)

And it is also intended to develop well-rounded citizens. Although college students younger than 19 were allowed to apply, anyone attending a conservatory was not eligible. “Of the finest young players in the country,” Gillinson says, “my guess is that at least 30 percent, maybe even 50 percent, won’t make music their life. They’re just as talented as the ones who will. I think one of the very special things about this community is that these are remarkable people who are going to make their lives in lots of different ways.”

Matzner, the violist, could be an example. Although he applied to some conservatories, he will start at Princeton in the fall. A “reason I decided not to go to conservatory,” he says, is “once you do that, you’re on the professional track.” He’d rather pursue music while leaving his options open, something stressed in the Washington Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, in which he played for years.

“The important thing that we emphasize,” says Ulysses S. James, the music director of the orchestra’s parent organization, the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic, “is that this is something you can do your whole life.”

This creates a subtle difference in the NYO-USA’s makeup. James Ross, the conductor charged with preparing the musicians for Gergiev’s arrival, during nearly two weeks of rehearsals, is no stranger to young orchestras; the head of the orchestral program at U-Md., he also led the National Orchestral Institute there for 11 years. The NYO-USA, he says, is “not as intensely pre-professional as NOI or the New World Symphony.” But, he said in an e-mail after the first rehearsals, “it is serving a different kind of purpose in the lives of our participants — more inspirational.”

Local youth orchestras, even top-flight ones, can’t act on the same scale. “I think we . . . provide the steady, constant training that musicians need,” says Margaret Adams, the executive director of the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestras, widely considered the flagship of the D.C.-area youth orchestra programs. “If it were not for what we were doing, these other organizations probably would not be able to recruit at the level they’re recruiting.”

But the AYPO hasn’t toured for some time; its annual operating budget is about $630,000. By contrast, Carnegie Hall — although it won’t give a figure for individual projects — plans to raise $10 million for the first five years of the NYO-USA program, with donors including Bloomberg, the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, and Ronald O. Perelman. Many youth orchestras charge tuition; the NYO-USA is paying all the players’ expenses.

Youth orchestras get to have it both ways. If they play brilliantly, they get accolades; if they do not, they get points for inspiring young players. The NYO-USA is trying to be many things, to many people: the best players, yet the most well-rounded; a national orchestra, but heading to Russia with a heavily Russian program and a Russian conductor (although with a new piece by the young American composer Sean Shepherd, called “Magiya,” Russian for “magic”).

Gillinson expresses, perhaps unwittingly, the inherent contradictions by comparing the new orchestra to the Olympics, with one difference. “In the arts,” he says, “you always win.”

In real life, of course, that isn’t true. Orchestras fail; gifted musicians struggle to make a living; fine performances are sometimes played to half-empty halls; and none of this is necessarily a reflection on quality. Gillinson concedes that the NYO-USA will partly be measured by audience reactions, reviews and — a big one — the caliber of player the ensemble succeeds in attracting. “If one attracts the finest young players, it will work,” he says. “After that, it’s what do we do with it.”

For the time being, the NYO-USA represents a rare arena in which just making it to the playing field, for the young musicians, really does involve winning. Zeynep Alpan, an 18-year-old violinist from Bethesda, has attended music school in Aspen, Colo., participated in the NSO’s fellowship program, and played with the European Union Youth Orchestra and the Afghan Youth Orchestra when they came to town. But, she says, “I have never been on a tour before with an orchestra.” And after the opening rehearsals, hearing everyone practicing together, she says, “I don’t think I’ve experienced this kind of energy in any other youth orchestra.”

Alpan, a hip-hop dancer who will go to Juilliard in the fall, could be emblematic of the NYO-USA’s well-rounded musician, as well as the third part of its mandate — the idea that young musicians can act as ambassadors to spread their love of music to their age group. If only more people knew about music — goes the thinking — they would love it; more children would flock to youth orchestras and learn discipline, citizenship and art. Alpan cites high school students who told her they were suddenly interested in hearing more classical music after hearing her chamber ensemble play a movement of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8.

Yet contact with music is not always enough to bring about a conversion experience, which Alpan knows firsthand. Her brother, who will be in the audience Saturday, plays the violin, too, but has yet to feel the love.

“He’s going to be turning 7,” Alpan says. “He doesn’t really like it right now. He has been protesting.”

The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, led by Valery Gergiev and with Joshua Bell as soloist in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, will perform at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Saturday at 8 p.m. The NSO National Trustees’ NSO Summer Music Institute Orchestra will perform at the venue Sunday at 6 p.m. (The second concert is free.)

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