2013 has been a year of great change. It’s only July, and already a pope has resigned, DOMA has been struck down, a space telescope has been crowdfunded, Egypt is in a state of confusion… and the United States got itself a national youth orchestra. Finally.
The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (henceforth, NYO-USA) kicked off its inaugural season with a residency at Purchase College culminating in a New York Times-reviewed performance, to be followed by a concert at the Kennedy Center in D.C., a tour of Russia with performances at the Moscow Conservatory and the Mariinsky II theater, and a visit to London for a slot in the BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall. Renowned conductor Valery Gergiev leads the group of 120 young people aged 16-19 from 42 states in a program of Shostakovich‘s Tenth Symphony, a brand-new commission by up-and-coming composer Sean Shepherd, and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. The violin soloist? It’s only Joshua Bell. No big deal.
As it happens, one of my very good friends is currently playing French horn with NYO-USA. You can read about her experiences on her personal blog, here. She’s super witty. You’ll love it.
As Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, explains in this article, “‘I was always baffled that there wasn’t a national youth orchestra in the United States.'” Many countries have national youth orchestras, which are financially supported and widely celebrated almost like Olympic teams. The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela is one of the world’s best, along with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and the Australian Youth Orchestra, and the Singapore National Youth Orchestra… even Iraq has one! Gillinson continues, “‘[National youth orchestras] are incredibly important in bringing together the most important young people in the country. When you bring people like that together, they all inspire each other. It helps everyone develop and it contributes in so many different ways.'”
In this article, renowned classical music critic Anne Midgette points out that “there are so many significant youth orchestra programs around the country, doing important work, often without much media attention, that it seems unfair to herald this new orchestra as if it was breaking new ground.” And she’s right — NYO-USA is by no means the first orchestra of talented young people from across the United States, nor is it necessarily the absolute best. Maybe that title goes to the New World Symphony, or the National Repertory Orchestra, or the National Orchestral Institute, or the Summer Music Institute of the National Symphony. There are plenty of organizations that gather the nation’s most talented young musicians for an incredible, rigorous music-making experience, and many of these organizations have a more long-established infrastructure and reputation so as to exceed NYO-USA in terms of artistry and musical maturity.
But NYO-USA is still groundbreaking, for two main reasons. First of all, there’s the ambassadorial aspect of their world tour, a much-needed display of musical goodwill at a time of international economic crises and natural disasters and political turmoil. It’s the same principle behind the cultural diplomacy of the Cold War era — propagandic yet effective, and which resulted in such successful and long-lasting programs as the Fulbright grants. The musicians of NYO-USA aren’t simply gallivanting around Europe — they’re representing the United States. They even have the opportunity to play side-by-side with a Russian youth orchestra during their stay in St. Petersburg. In this article, Gillinson states that each year the orchestra will travel to “‘a different part of the world, which is important to America’s relationships with the world.'” The author of the article further explains that the orchestra “is also intended to develop well-rounded citizens” — this is a vital difference between NYO-USA and more pre-professional ensembles such as the aforementioned NRO or NOI or SMI. With Carnegie Hall and its Weill Music Institute footing the bill, NYO-USA has the resources to create a pool of alumni — 120 each year — who are culturally informed American citizens, appreciative of and knowledgeable about other places and other people. What could possibly be better for this country’s future?
The second reason NYO-USA is pretty important is the very same media attention which Anne Midgette feels is unwarranted. When’s the last time a classical group in the United States got this much media attention? This is a country so lacking in broad appreciation for the arts that it took until 2013 for us to get a national youth orchestra to call our own. Trust me, classical music could use some media attention about now — and these talented kids by all means deserve it.