Two weeks before their six-city American tour, the musicians of the European Union Youth Orchestra are holed up, practicing Richard Strauss’s “Alpine Spring,” among the snow-capped peaks of Interlaken. They’re not there to set the mood — although, “Alpine Spring” must sound crisper in Switzerland — but because Vladimir Ashkenazy, their six-time Grammy Award-winning conductor and music director, lives nearby, outside Lucerne. Some of the orchestra members are meeting in this scenic tourist hub for the first time, while others are old hands at the age of 20. But all the members, ages 15 to 24, are grateful to be part of an orchestra that recruits promising young musicians from schools and conservatories around the continent.
On April 15, the EUYO will perform a program of Copland, Bruch and Strauss at the Kennedy Center, its first American tour since 1988. The orchestra also will visit the Big Apple and the Windy City and meet musicians from the University of North Carolina and Indiana University. For their travels and good will, they’re rewarded with a program that reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of classical. Many of these young talents will make their American debut with Itzhak Perlman in Carnegie Hall and Pinchas Zuckerman at the Kennedy Center.
Not a bad welcome to the United States.
“We’ve been here for only three days, and already we’re so excited,” said Andrei Mihailescu, 21, a principal bassist from Romania. “The orchestra influences your life so muc. . . . How many people at this age can say, I’ve played with Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman? It’s one in a million for us.”
Yet the odds of becoming one of the privileged young musicians aren’t so stacked. About 4,000 amateur musicians audition each year. Naturally, competition is tough and competitive. Besides its reputation for snazzy, glamorous tours — this one is costing about $90,000 — the EUYO is a renowned feeder orchestra, bolstering the burgeoning careers of its 117 young members, who hail from all 27 countries in the E.U.
“If you’ve been in the EUYO, it is like a diploma,” said Joy Bryer, co-founder and secretary general of the orchestra. “You can go on to join the London Symphony or any one of the great orchestras in Europe. “
“Some our musicians have never played in an orchestra,” said Ashkenazy. “After two weeks of rehearsal, they play like a professional orchestra. They’re very well prepared. I don’t think of them as young people. I treat them as a professional orchestra, and they are adults already, wonderful and keen.”
The orchestra provides the sort of rare career stability that eludes a continent ravaged by unemployment spikes and widespread debt. It also serves its cultural mission, fostering relationships among E.U. member states in a venue where language barriers or historical rifts are absent — the countries have always shared the same sheet music.
The musicians commit to two month-long tours annually. When not on tour, they’re in their home countries, practicing at conservatories. Tutors hold live auditions annually in each of the 27 countries, and they’re always well attended, with applicants aware that admission is a coveted insurance policy, a résumé bullet that grants them access to the best tutors and tours and concert halls, all expenses paid by E.U. governments and private sponsors. None of the orchestra members are paid, but their biannual tours are fully funded. They are required to speak English, and each country is always represented in the orchestra. This year, Spain has the most musicians, at 17. Ninety percent of the musicians go on to perform in professional orchestras, and there’s a notable alumni list that includes French violinist Renaud Capuçon and Italian cellist Mario Brunello. All members re-audition each year, keeping the program competitive and merit-based. It’s Bryer’s version of the America dream, alive and well in Europe.
“I think being American, I was very open and democratic and I didn’t have a feeling that there should be more Brits or Italians or Dutch,” said Bryer, 81, who settled in Britain after she married Lionel Bryer, her late husband. The Bryers founded the orchestra in1976 in London. Born and raised in Boston, Joy Bryer studied at the Sorbonne in Paris just after World War II, where she says she was inspired to work toward European cultural unification. “I saw the ruins of Rotterdam and of all of Europe, and I thought to myself, ‘This should never happen again.’ ” In 1969, the Bryers founded the International Youth Foundation of Great Britain, to promote European unity through cultural activities. Sponsoring cultural festivals throughout Europe, the orchestra was a natural outgrowth of her vision for promoting cultural diplomacy through young people.
And now, at a seminal moment in European politics, these young adults are taking on a larger role as diplomats for the continent. Many are aware of the symbolism of their harmonies, giving well-versed thoughts on the European debt crisis and the orchestra’s significance in European countries that have become increasingly nationalistic.
“This image, we have — we represent more than an economical union,” Mihailescu said. “We represent a broader view, a cultural one, where we show diversity can be unitary. It’s music that bonds us together.”
The tours, too, leave impressions on the musicians.
“The last spring tour, when we went to Serbia and Croatia, they were aspiring to get into the E.U.,” said Magnus Koch Jensen, 20, a bassoonist from Denmark, whose younger brother Victor, a trumpeter, is also in the orchestra. “We played in the old city center in Belgrade, and it was amazing to see these gray buildings from former Soviet Union. It left impressions.”
But the tours are not all work. Musicians insist that the atmosphere is more collegial than competitive — like a study abroad for prodigies.
Bryer takes pride that many of her young musicians have gone on to found chamber ensembles together. The older ones mentor new members, and even their promotional videos show young violinists imbibing at Oktoberfest and doing all the things one would expect teens and twentysomethings to do while jetting to Hong Kong, India or New York City.
“We’re normal people,” Jensen said. “I’m under 21, so I won’t be drinking in U.S., but here in Europe, we’re definitely going out. I won’t tell you too much about it though.”
“It’s a family,” said Bryer, who hasn’t missed a tour since she founded the orchestra decades ago. “I always say I’m the mother of 5,000 young musicians. Many of them have married after they met in the orchestra, so I have grandchildren now. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
The Washington Performing Arts Society Orchestra Series presents the European Union Youth Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor, and Pinchas Zukerman, violin. Sunday, April 15, 4 p.m., Kennedy Center. www.wpas.org. Tickets $15 - $75.