Wednesday, January 14, 2015

National Youth Orchestra of the United States

I was listening to the radio recently when Bernstein conducting Symphonic Dances from West Side Story came on.  I really enjoy listening to Bernstein conduct Bernstein.

The music swelled through the beginning movements of the piece until the "Cha-Cha."  In the story, this is where Tony and Maria meet and do a cute little dance.  I wouldn't normally describe this part as the most emotionally-inspiring moment in the piece, but at that moment I was flooded with memories of playing this piece with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA this summer and I couldn't contain myself.

The National Youth Orchestra of the United States is a summer orchestra of 120 kids between the ages of 16 and 19. It was founded by Carnegie Hall in 2014 and involves an intensive two-week retreat at Purchase College in New York, where the participants work with various conductors and are coached by musicians from major orchestras around the US.  During the second week of the retreat, a world class conductor and soloist joined for rehearsals - last summer it was David Robertson conducting and Gil Shaham soloing.  The NYO-USA debuted at Carnegie Hall, and following that, went on a multi-city tour around the US.

NYO-USA was, to put it frankly, the most inspiring and influential musical and social experience of my life so far.  Before NYO, I had never been in an orchestra where so many of the people cared so much for their art.  In the rehearsal hall, everyone was constantly paying attention to matching everyone else's tone, intonation, rhythm, phrasing, style, articulation, everything!  After most every rehearsal, several people (the ones who weren't scurrying off to get a meal after the long rehearsals) either stayed on the stage rehearsing or went backstage to work on their parts with each other!  I grew used to requests from other musicians to tune this section, or make sure that other section was together.

Although these requests came quite often, they were never critical, the musicians just wanted to illuminate a problem or refine tuning or adjust some little something that was making the music we played together sound less good than it could. One time, Annie Wu, an incredible flutists asked me to stay after a rehearsal and work on the Bernstein.

I was playing Eb clarinet while she was on piccolo, which means we had several sections that we played together.  If you ask anyone who knows anything about the piccolo and the Eb clarinet, they will tell you, that contrary to what composers seem to have thought, these instruments are more unsuited to each other than any other two standard orchestral instruments!  Up to this point, when I had played Eb (or the little devil as I like to call it), I would attempt to match the piccolo and he or she would attempt to match me, and we would be closer than if we hadn't listened to each other at all, but we would still be quite far away in our pitch.  Mostly, I concluded that it was impossible to really be in tune with the piccolo when I played Eb clarinet, so I didn't worry too much about it. Annie, however, had higher standards, and she was relentless.  After a rehearsal, she came up to me and said "I think we're out of tune in some sections in the Bernstein, we should spend some time working on them."  I agreed, and we got to work.  I don't think I have learned more about tuning Eb clarinet than when working with Annie.

As a result of these collaborations, I learned a lot about listening to the other players in an orchestra, and I learned that I didn't have to ever settle for close enough.  We could always make it better.  That's probably the most important thing I learned this summer - that I still have a lot to learn, and that I can always make a passage of music a little bit better, a little bit more in tune, a little bit more colorful, and a little bit more excellent.

I have so many more things to say about the summer of 2014.  It was incredible to work with David Robertson and Gil Shaham.  I made so many friends, and learned so much, and had so much fun.  It has been hard to figure out where to start writing about any of it, and it's already time for Carnegie Hall to choose the young musicians of this summer's orchestra.  I applied again, and I hope very much that I will be selected, but if I learned anything from my NYO summer, it was that the US is filled with incredible young musicians many of whom will also be auditioning.

But I'm crossing my fingers...

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