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July 18, 2013

US National Youth Orchestra Takes Top Talent on Tour

by Jeff Lunden

Among the many options for summer activities for youngsters in the United States are music camps. Some are hosted by colleges, some by music schools, and the newest was created by New York’s renowned concert venue, Carnegie Hall.

First US National Youth Orchestra Takes Top Talent on Tour

In July, 120 teenagers from 42 states - some of the best young musicians in the country - gathered on the campus of Purchase College, outside of New York City, to create the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.  
They were welcomed by Clive Gillinson, executive director of Carnegie Hall, the driving force behind the new orchestra. He recalls playing cello in Great Britain's National Youth Orchestra as a highlight of his life. South Africa, Germany, Venezuela, Iraq, Malaysia and dozens of other countries have national youth orchestras, and when he became executive director of Carnegie Hall in 2005, Gillinson couldn’t believe the United States did not have one.
Trombonist Skye Dearborn (center), a member of the 2013 National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America rehearses at SUNY Purchase. (Photo courtesy Chris Lee)
​​"So I thought there needed to be [one]," he said. "I think every country needs one, in terms of inspiring, you know, the best students inspiring each other."  
So Gillinson and Carnegie’s staff set out to find the finest musicians in the country, from ages 16 to 19, and began raising millions of dollars to bring the project to fruition.
"There were a number of things that we felt were important.," he stressed. "One of them was that it should be free to all the students participating, because we thought it should be something where anybody can take part, not that if you don’t have enough money, you can’t.  So, obviously, that makes it more expensive." 
It all came together over the past two years. Principal players from major U.S. symphony orchestras agreed to come to Purchase to coach the members of the various instrument sections, international tour dates were lined up, and violinist Joshua Bell signed on as soloist.
Carrie Dennis, Principal Viola with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, helps NYO-USA violist Mya Greene with her hand position. (Photo courtesy Chris Lee)
​​He said performing with the young musicians was a different experience than playing with a great professional orchestra. "For them, it’s not a job yet. You know, music is not a job yet.  It’s still all excitement and joy." He added with a laugh, "It should be that way for professional orchestras, too, but it’s not always!"   
Excitement certainly describes Skye Dearborn’s reaction when the 17-year-old trombone player from South Dakota learned she was accepted into the orchestra. "It blew my mind - the first rehearsal, I was speechless.  I feel so privileged to play with these kids who are, you know, I feel like half of them are going to Juilliard and Harvard and Princeton, Yale.  And it’s really awesome to be surrounded by the talent, because I feel like I’m absorbing it, in a way." 
 Violist Mya Greene, 16, compared working with University of Maryland conductor James Ross in rehearsal with playing in youth orchestras in her hometown, Los Angeles. "You know, sometimes it can be overwhelming - just drilling technique, getting people to just even, like, have some basic concept of the rhythm.  But here it was like the opposite, it was just, basically, it’s like he had assumed that we’d already have the canvas and he was gonna start painting on it."  
NYO-USA Rehearsals with Valery Gergiev at SUNY Purchase. (Photo courtesy Chris Lee)
​​The orchestra spent over a week preparing for the arrival of Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. Micheal Barnes, a 19-year-old percussionist from Oklahoma was overwhelmed by the maestro's first rehearsal with the teens. "The energy that he brings to the stage: wow!" he said. "I like that he doesn’t conduct with a baton.  He’s not very flashy or showy about his conducting. Sometimes it’s even hard to find the downbeat, but it makes you really hang on to the music more."
After two weeks of rehearsing, getting to know each other, and becoming good friends, the young musicians performed their first concert together as an orchestra and got several standing ovations.
Barnes noticed a difference from the podium during the performance. "Maestro Gergiev really - wow, he just totally changed when he started conducting the real thing.  He just brought all of the stops out.  And it was just great.  I think we truly became the National Youth Orchestra tonight."  
After a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the National Youth Orchestra flew to Russia, for concerts at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, and the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg. The tour ends in London, with a televised performance at the Royal Albert Hall.  And next year, a completely new National Youth Orchestra will tour the United States.