Celebrating 50 years of the New York Youth Symphony – watch exclusive video
Vivien Schweitzer goes behind the scenes of one of America’s most talented youth orchestras
‘Let’s work on sound quality,’ says the conductor Joshua Gersen during a recent rehearsal with the New York Youth Symphony, as he guides the young musicians in the first movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony.
‘Always phrase to the last bar,’ he adds, advising the violins about tremolos and the whole ensemble about dynamics and articulation. The rehearsal, in the huge basement space of the DiMenna Center in Manhattan, is in preparation for concerts celebrating the ensemble’s 50th anniversary season.
Talented musicians between ages 12 and 22 perform with the orchestra. Gersen – a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia who is now based in Miami, where he works with Michael Tilson Thomas as assistant conductor of the New World Symphony – joined the NYYS this autumn as music director. When auditioning for the position, Gerson was struck by the potential of the group. ‘For me, when you’re working with young students you’re not sure about the level,’ he says. ‘You’re never really sure what you’ll get. There is a lot of talent in the orchestra.’
That talent and professionalism has been amply recognised over the years, with reviews of recent concerts in the New York Times full of accolades like ‘beautifully polished’, ‘assured and spirited’ and ‘a compelling performance’. One review noted that ‘they produce a sound that would do an adult orchestra proud’.
Whereas even the best professional orchestras can sound jaded, these young musicians play with an energy and excitement that renders the occasional technical error irrelevant. The rehearsals bode well indeed for first-rate concerts this season.
Gersen will conduct the NYYS in the Dvořák on November 25 at Carnegie Hall, in a programme that also includes Ludwig Wilhelm Maurer’s Sinfonia Concertante for Four Violins in A minor, performed by the violinists Cho-Liang Lin (a former NYYS concertmaster), Michelle Kim (assistant concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic), Samuel Katz, (NYYS’s current concertmaster) and Alice Ivy-Pemberton (a member of NYYS's chamber programme). The programme also includes the world premiere of Universal at Midnight by Gabriel Zucker, an alumnus of the composition programme. In 2013, on March 3 at Queens College and March 24 at Carnegie Hall, Gersen conducts Gary Graffman in Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, as well as Prokofiev’s Suite from Romeo and Juliet and the world premiere of Paul Dooley’s Run for the Sun. On May 12 at Queens College and May 26 at Carnegie Hall the programme features the world premiere of John Glover’s Natural Systems, the Overture to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus and Mahler’s Symphony No 1.
Gersen, now 28, has played in youth orchestras, where he also conducted for the first time. ‘I think it’s a very important experience for these students to learn how to play in an ensemble,’ he tells me during an interview before the rehearsal, having just flown in for the day from Miami.
‘To share ideas and learn that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts is an important concept for them to learn, as musicians and people,’ he adds. ‘Some will pursue music, some not. There is more to being a musician than good technique. What does music mean to them and how will they communicate to an audience? I want to get that across to them.’
NYYS students can also participate in chamber music and jazz programmes. The jazz ensembles are presented at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center and have several anniversary concerts this season.
One particularly impressive element of the NYYS is the commissioning programme: the orchestra has awarded commissions to 102 composers aged 30 and under since 1984. Those commissions have won three Pulitzer Prizes, 12 Rome Prizes, 15 Guggenheim Fellowships, and the Grawemeyer Award between them. The long list of names commissioned by the NYYS includes such respected composers as Michael Torke, Aaron Jay Kernis, Augusta Read Thomas, Kevin Puts and Derek Bermel.
John Corigliano, who inaugurated the commissioning programme, was involved in the process for the first 10 years. In a phone interview, he stresses the importance of having a rotating jury, given that composers are allowed to submit the same work three years in a row. Composers are also judged anonymously: judges are told only the age of the composer when given the score and recording. As Corigliano points out, a work that seems impressive when written by a 16-year-old, might seem less so when created by a 28-year-old.
He recalls that one year the panel included two people ‘who were diametrically opposed aesthetically, and hated each other. It was really a war scene, and yet at the end they picked the same composer.’ They were both ‘bewildered’ that that had happened, he added.
Gersen, who is also a composer and is on the NYYS composition selection committee, says he ‘has a committed idea’ of what he looks for in new pieces. ‘When I’m looking at a new piece of music I want to feel that the composer is communicating something about themselves,’ he continues. ‘Sometimes new composers are too worried about finding technical ways of expressing or being original for originality’s sake. Technique is important but what are you saying with that technique? We want to learn about the composer.’
During a break in the rehearsal in the DiMenna Center, Issei Herr, the orchestra’s principal cellist, speaks about how exciting he has found it to work with a composer and give the premiere of a piece. The fact that the conductors are young and close in age to the NYYS musicians, he adds, contributes to the collaborative spirit. Other young ensembles, he added, have ‘old professor conductors’.
Samuel Katz, the concertmaster, enthuses about the passion of his young colleagues. ‘The expectations of the conductor drives the level of the ensemble,’ he says. ‘They don’t give up on us even though it’s tough. Everyone is driven to perform at highest level here. This is where you forge musical relationships that stay with you.’
Many distinguished musicians have performed with the orchestra; Itzhak Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut with the ensemble in 1963 performing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Leonard Slatkin, then the orchestra’s assistant conductor, made his Carnegie Hall debut as pianist in Bloch’s Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra with Piano Obbligato.
Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, was a violinist with the NYYS in 1972 and, in a phone interview, describes her admiration for Isaiah Jackson, then the group’s conductor. ‘I was already interested in the idea of becoming a conductor,’ she explains, ‘and I learned a lot from him. He had the most beautiful hands and was very enthusiastic about the music.’
Shauna Quill, executive director and an alumnus of the NYYS’s chamber music programme, tells me that tuition and performance opportunities are free for students – but the auditions are competitive. Of 225 potential orchestra members who auditioned last year, for example, 105 were accepted. A few musicians from last season weren’t reaccepted this season, she adds.
‘There has been this question,’ she muses: ‘Are we a performing ensemble with an educational mission or vice versa? This been a long debate among youth orchestras in the country. We are not necessarily trying to train the next Perlman, but we are trying to train the next musical citizens of America.’
‘A lot of people are saying that classical music is dying off,’ she continues, ‘but we are proving that it’s not true – that there is this great hope from these kids. We have alumni everywhere and they always play music and still love it. It’s great that some of our kids go to Juilliard, but it’s equally important that they keep music in their life forever.’