Carnegie Hall's New National Youth Orchestra Prepares for Debut

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It's summertime...but the living isn’t necessarily easy for 120 restless, over-achieving teenagers in an auditorium at SUNY Purchase. These are members of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States, a new project of Carnegie Hall's education wing, the Weill Music Institute. The students are ages 16 to 19 and hail from 42 states.

As conductor James Ross drills string players in a Gershwin encore, a much older violinist demonstrates some vibrato on his instrument. Robert Chen, concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony, is one of several coaches here. He says he likes teaching from the back of the orchestra. "It’s a good thing. You see what they’re doing: "Don’t cross your legs! Spit out your gum! Don’t yawn in the middle of it!"

Chen jokes but Carnegie Hall has some serious ambitions for its new ensemble. While the U.S. has various all-state orchestras and music camps like the Interlochen Arts Academy, it’s never had a national group in modern times. Yet national youth orchestras exist in dozens of countries worldwide. England has had one since 1948.

"The first reaction for most people in Britain is: 'it’s about time that the United States had its own youth orchestra because most European youth orchestras have been going for many years,'" said Richard Morrison, the classical music critic of the Times of London.

Morrison argues that youth orchestras have a better shot than traditional groups at making the art form seem youthful and energetic.   

"Certainly, youth orchestras have an impact on the public, which the more sort of staid traditional orchestras in tails and bow ties don't have," he said. "I think they have an exuberance about them and I think they show the public that youth is interested in classical music and not just in rock."

Lily Tsai is a violinist from Paolo Alto, California who will be starting her freshman year at Harvard this fall. "It's definitely different than playing with a group that you’re used to because everyone brings their own musical ideas and their own different talent to the orchestra."

Tsai said she's looking forward to being a global ambassador. On Friday the NYO begins a tour to Washington, DC, Moscow, St. Petersburg and London. "I think we can take music and music can convey a lot that maybe politics can’t so we can connect on an emotional level with other countries."

The National Youth Orchestra will rehearse and tour each July. Students audition by sending in videos. Travel and lodging is paid for and there's no tuition. At Purchase, long days have been spent rehearsing, taking classes, doing yoga and playing late-night card games, says Joseph Morag, a violinist from the Upper West Side who attends LaGuardia High School.

"It's a daunting task to make a full symphony and a full concerto and a commissioned piece and an encore gel all in that little bit of time," he noted. "But even the first rehearsal and first string sectional and we all starting playing it was like 'whoa.'"

Chicago Symphony concertmaster Robert Chen coaches the National Youth Orchestra

Touring a 120-piece orchestra and entourage isn't cheap. The NYO will reportedly cost several million dollars for its first three years. But education programs are a big draw for funders. Financing for the NYO is coming from Joan and Sanford Weill, plus several foundations. Clive Gillinson, Carnegie's executive and artistic director, sees the group as a chance to enhance America’s image around the globe.

"When I was in Moscow about two years ago, and saw the American ambassador and talked to him about the project, he said a project like this can do more than anything us diplomats can do."

It's true that unlike some youth orchestras, the NYO doesn’t have a social service agenda -- it's not about raising kids out of poverty. And convincing audiences to buy tickets for a youth orchestra may be tough. But Carnegie Hall officials believe their orchestra can lead by example and help raise music education standards across the country. Next year the group will tour around the U.S.; in 2015 it’s slated to visit China.

"The job is first of all to create something extraordinary and the second is to believe in it and, you’re right, that is a marketing job," said Gillinson. "The quality of what is going on will do it as well. It won’t be an unknown quantity by the time it travels around America next year.”

WQXR will broadcast the National Youth Orchestra of the United States on July 27, in a concert from the BBC Proms in London.

National Youth Orchestra of the United States in concert dress (Chris Lee)