Carnegie Hall presents the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts by Jane Coyne

It was a very proud night for music and for our country when on Saturday night, July 12, 2013, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute presented its newly formed National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America in a sold-out concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The concert was the first performance in a debut tour that will continue with performances in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and London. Led by world renowned conductor Valery Gergiev and joined onstage for a performance with internationally acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell, the National Youth Orchestra, comprised of 120 highly talented young musicians and representing 42 states, performed a perfectly programmed concert that was simply stunning.

National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America Valery Gergiev conducted the debut of the orchestra at Purchase College. Photo by Karsten Moran for The New York Times.

National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America Valery Gergiev conducted the debut of the orchestra at Purchase College. Photo by Karsten Moran for The New York Times.

The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America is the brainchild and passion of Carnegie Hall’s Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson, whose genuine joy in realizing this opportunity for promising young U.S. youth was both apparent and contagious as he introduced the orchestra and explained that his own experience in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain was the inspiration for his own life in music. The performance based program, which is free and open to all by audition, involves a two week residency, including section coaching by instrumentalists from major U.S. orchestras, opportunities to forge relationships with highly gifted peers from across the U.S., the privilege to tour the globe while working with, learning from and performing with iconic and legendary conductors and musicians of international reputation, and a once in a lifetime chance to serve their country as cultural and personal youth ambassadors.

The Russian themed program, ideally suited to this year’s Russian born conductor and upcoming tour, opened with the premiere of Majiya, an exciting and energetic Russian inspired work by Composer Sean Shepherd, who was in attendance for the performance. After lengthy applause from a very appreciative, supportive, and clearly pleased audience, Joshua Bell took the stage to perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35. Widely recognized as being one of the world’s most gifted living violinists, Bell did not disappoint. Although many of the young musicians on stage had no previous experience performing a concerto work with any musician, Bell and Gergiev coaxed and led them through a challenging performance of this much loved work, earning multiple standing ovations both at its conclusion and between its movements. The first half of the program closed with a lovely, dreamlike, and well-balanced rendition of “Melodie” from Tchaikovksy’s  Souvenir d’un lieu cher.

From an orchestral standpoint, the highlight of the evening came in the second half of the concert as Valery Gergiev led the National Youth Orchestra in a simply outstanding and shockingly well-interpreted performance of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op.93. In a recent interview, Maestro Gergiev discussed interpretation, and specifically interpreting Shostakovich. He indicated that while the young musicians of the National Youth Orchestra might play every note in tune and in tempo that it would remain to be seen whether the audience would hear and understand Shostakovich. Perhaps with a lot of assistance from their amazing conductor, it was the interpretation of this piece, played by young American musicians who in all likelihood had little to no prior understanding of the life conditions that influenced Shostakovich, that was the most striking element of a performance that could have been limited to exceptional execution of notes, rhythms, and extremely difficult passages. Gergiev, who gave up his vacation to work with this group, gave one hundred and twenty musicians perhaps his greatest gift of all in teaching them the difference between notes and music at such a young age. As many of these young people do move on to conservatory and college level training, they will soon learn that while many can play notes with surprising ease, far fewer play music.

Prior to the concert, I sat outside of the stage entrance, in order that I might hear the conversations and comments of some of the young musicians returning from dinner to ready themselves for their performance. Among the comments I heard were these:

“I have actually never seen or heard a Strad in person before. I can’t believe that when I finally got the chance, it was being played by Joshua Bell, and that I’m going to be performing with him tonight!”

“Can you believe this? We’re actually at the Kennedy Center. I’ve only seen it on television before. Now we’re here, and not to sit in the audience. We’re really going to be on that stage in a few minutes. OMG.”

“Not that I think that I should have been anywhere yet, but isn’t it amazing that we’re here and on our way to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and London?”

“I wish my parents were here.”

“I wish my teacher could be here.”

Angelique Montes.

Angelique Montes.

One of the musicians of the National Youth Orchestra happens to be a young lady whom I have known for most of her life. Her name is Angelique Montès. She is a talented young cellist from New Orleans. I know her mother and father, as well as her aunts, uncles, and grandparents, most of whom are musicians. While doing music outreach in Haiti with her uncle, I visited the family home in Port au Prince. I was at Angelique’s Suzuki Book One cello recital in Iowa City, Iowa and knew her when she could barely carry, let alone play a cello, so I was delighted to learn that she had earned a spot in the National Youth Orchestra. I found Angelique to be as lovely and unassuming as she has always been. I asked her to share her experience with me, and after informing me that I did not need to mention her name, she said, “It was just unbelievable when Gergiev arrived. We had been very well prepared in Purchase by James Ross, but when Gergiev arrived it was just so exciting. He is very demanding, and we all just love him. Joshua Bell is great. We have been with him in multiple rehearsals now, and he lets us talk to him and ask questions when there is a break. I’m really looking forward to the rest of the tour. I heard the performance in Moscow sold out in just a few hours.”

Joshua Bell.

Joshua Bell.

I also had an opportunity to catch up with Josh Bell, who was happily inundated by hundreds of autograph seeking fans after the concert. Earlier in the day, I had heard Josh describing his experience with the National Youth Orchestra, as he shared the joy he finds in working with young people who are not yet burdened by the business of music, as well as his hope that more working musicians would hang on to the simple enthusiasm for making music that he sees in young people. Aware of the significant educational and outreach work Josh does do with young people, I asked him if he has had previous opportunities to work with young musicians on an extended tour that allows greater opportunity to interact with and mentor them to a greater degree than when he pops in for a single performance. “Actually, I have,” he indicated. “You know I love it. I really love it. This tour is a great opportunity for the kids, but it’s also wonderful for me. I’m very happy to be a part of it. I just love it!”

It was a delight to witness the inaugural performance of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America. Congratulations to Clive Gillinson and Carnegie Hall and to all of their sponsors for making this wonderful and long overdue program a reality. Congratulations also to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, whose National Symphony Orchestra Summer Institute provides another wonderful and free national level mentorship and training opportunity for young musicians, for hosting this inaugural performance. We wish the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America all the best as they embark on their inaugural tour. We could not be more proud!

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Click here to listen to Carnegie Hall Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson discuss the transformative power of a national youth orchestra experience in the professional and personal lives of children. Other videos are here.

Lily Tsai is concertmaster of the National Youth Orchestra of the USA (Brian Wise/WQXR).

Lily Tsai is concertmaster of the National Youth Orchestra of the USA (Brian Wise/WQXR).

Click here for more information on the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America and to follow their exciting inaugural tour and performances in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and London.

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