Each summer, New York City’s Carnegie Hall brings together more than 200 of the most talented young musicians from across the United States to train and perform as part of its three national youth ensembles: National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA), NYO2, and NYO Jazz. Free for all participants, the program involves an intensive three-week residency and is usually followed by an international tour and performance at Carnegie Hall.
Although a tour is unable to happen this year, 208 musicians, representing 40 US states, still participated in this year’s exciting, yet altered, orchestral training program.
We sat down with Doug Beck, Director of Artist Training Programs at Carnegie Hall to discuss the NYO's pivots amidst this year’s unusual circumstances — as the three ensembles prepare for a free international live streamed concert performance this Saturday, July 24, 2021.
Can you start by telling us about the program? What is its mission?
Our main mission at NYO is to bring young talented folks together and have them inspire, form relationships, and teach each other. We then add to the mix wonderful coaches and guest artists who, in many cases, have long relationships with Carnegie Hall through their own performances on our stages. The final element is around the concerts and touring. In previous years our students have had the opportunity to travel to Europe, Asia, and South America where they’ve met other young musicians and functioned as informal musical ambassadors. The program usually ends with a performance at Carnegie Hall, as a culmination of the student’s work throughout their residency.
In what ways has the 2021 program been altered to cater to this year’s unusual circumstances?
The biggest difference in this year’s program is the level of digital production for all three groups. We’re taking advantage of the time and space without an audience to do more studio-style recording. This allows us to really flesh out the amount of repertoire the students get to engage with over the summer. Since Carnegie Hall is closed until the fall, the musicians are working towards a digital concert on July 24th, instead.
What initiatives have been put in place to ensure the safety of the musicians and faculty?
During our planning, we worked with experts in infectious disease and epidemiology to determine how to go about getting the players on stage as safely as possible. We put in place a 10 day quarantine, during which all the students had online private lessons with coaches, and participated in panel conversations with the New World Symphony, score reading sessions, and online conversations with special guests like Alan Gilbert.
The main protocol has been around creating the proverbial bubble within Purchase College, which is a very controlled environment to begin with because it’s an isolated, suburban campus. We also have a rigorous testing system, and we have not had any positive tests.
Did you see a difference in the number of applicants in the last two years compared to normal years?
We did see a drop off in the number of applicants, but we expected that. It was less for us than other summer programs because we were fairly confident in hosting some in-person activity this year. But given the current absence of ensemble playing, it’s not surprising that the motivation to be a part of something like this is a bit different.
How has the atmosphere amongst the students been? What was the first day of rehearsals like, given that this was the first time since the pandemic that most of the students had played together in large ensembles?
A lot of students have said that it feels like “normal NYO” in terms of a given day’s activities. Not to just present the positive side of things, but I do feel like in each of these ensembles, I have seen more engagement consistently from everyone — there’s a greater appreciation for the opportunity to play amongst peers.
It was a really powerful moment when the first rehearsal happened. There was a tremendous release of energy and also a bit of unfamiliarity with what playing in an ensemble felt like. It took a little time for everyone to get their sea legs, but it was incredibly moving and joyful.
Beyond the opportunity you’re giving these young musicians to get a glimpse of the life of a professional orchestral musician, what are the other initiatives that these players get to experience over the residency?
We try to open the students’ eyes to the other aspects of a professional musician’s life, and the various roles they can play as a musician. We haven’t had the chance to bring in as many guests as we normally would, but during the quarantine period, the NYO2 players did engage in a number of discussions with the members of the New World Symphony about the different ways to use a music degree. As well as that, we have had a series of score study sessions, and our conducting staff has run a few sessions where potentially interested students have had a chance to get up on the podium in front of their peers for a few minutes.
Promoting new music has always been an integral part of the program. Can you tell us a little about the contemporary music that will be featured in the digital performances?
We’re very excited to have commissioned a piece for NYO2 from a young composer called Molly Joyce, whose work uses textual sound descriptions for viewers who may be deaf or hearing-impaired. In addition, we have a piece by Anna Clyne for the NYO2 program called “Sound and Fury,” and we are featuring several works by our apprentice composers who are students the same age as their instrumental counterparts.
One of the things that I was really excited about was the interest all of the musicians took in the new music elements this year, which has not always been the case. In the 9-year timespan of these programs, the appetite young musicians have for new music has increased markedly, and I think that’s a great sign for the future of the art form.
You would’ve been forgiven for canceling the program this year. Why was it so important for Carnegie Hall that you didn’t?
The entire team at Carnegie Hall has fallen in love with NYO over the years and has made a commitment to these young people, who in many cases have been working toward this goal and dreaming about this from an early age. So we really wanted to do as much as we could.
We are also fortunate not to be reliant on tuition, and we felt that we had the ability to deliver something worthwhile to the students, even in a challenging year. Even though last year’s program was two weeks and completely online, the virtual performances and online activities were, frankly, much more successful than we expected!
Our decision to go ahead with the program is certainly a testament to the importance the institution feels this program has. Personally, I love it. It’s a real joy to work with such thoughtful, talented, and interesting people. I never expected being around 200 teenagers for a month would be as much fun as it is.
The free live streamed event, featuring all three USA National Youth Orchestra ensembles, will be streamed LIVE here on The Violin Channel on Saturday, July 24, 2021, at 3.00 PM (ET) — 8.00PM London time and 4:00 AM Sunday in Seoul.