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Top Five High-Powered Youth Orchestras

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With Carnegie Hall’s announcement that it will develop a National Youth Orchestra, top American instrumentalists from 16 to 19 years old will get the chance to train and tour in what organizers plan to be a world class ensemble. Plans are already in place for Valery Gergiev to lead the orchestra in a tour to St. Petersburg, Moscow and London in 2013.

Youth orchestras are by no means a new invention and -- despite a challenging job market -- are responsible for ushering several great musicians into world-class careers. Here are five of the best:

1. Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester

Claudio Abbado founded the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (or youth orchestra) in the 1980s as a means of connecting young Austrian musicians with their counterparts in communist countries such as Hungary. In 1992, the audition process was opened to all European musicians under 26. Last year the group toured with Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, Colin Davis and Philippe Jordan while releasing a CD of Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10.

2. Simon Bolivar Orchestra

The pearl of Venezuela’s El Sistema musical education program, Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, has graduated from its student-status to become a full-fledged symphony orchestra. In their stead, another ensemble boasts the country’s top high school musicians, the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra. Gustavo Dudamel, who came to prominence as the Simon Bolivar’s conductor, has also led Teresa Carreño ensemble at the Proms last summer to rave reviews.

3. Verbier Festival Orchestra

Though its members a little older than other youth orchestras (the musicians range from 17 to 29 years old), the Verbier Festival Orchestra boasts alumni at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Vienna State Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic. Since 2000, about 100 musicians from approximately 30 countries are invited to participate in the summer festival in the Swiss Alps and work under the baton of legendary conductors like conductor laureate James Levine and current director Charles Dutoit.

4. West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

Daniel Barenboim, an Israeli, and Edward Said, a Palestinian, founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999 as a means of fostering understanding in the Middle East. During summers, instrumentalists from Israel and Arab countries are invited to the organization’s Seville, Spain headquarters for an intensive musical workshop. Then the ensemble sets off on a tour. Last year, it traveled through Europe and to Doha. 

5. European Union Youth Orchestra 

Founded as the European Community Youth Orchestra (also by Claudio Abbado 10 years before he started the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra), the European Union Youth Orchestra has a whopping 140 members between 14 and 24 years old from all 27 EU countries. This spring, the ensemble will tour through the U.S., making a stop at Carnegie Hall with Itzhak Perlman.