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How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Join the NYO

By Joanne Sydney Lessner, Contributing Writer, July 12, 2018

Since 2013, the National Youth Orchestra of the United States (NYO-USA) has drawn young musicians ages 16-19 from all over the country and Puerto Rico for a two-week residency at SUNY Purchase and a performance at Carnegie Hall, before embarking on a national or international tour. This summer, the orchestra’s first stop is Caramoor’s Annual Chamber Feast on Sunday, July 15 at 2:00 p.m., where the young musicians will perform in small ensembles around the picturesque grounds. Carnegie Hall is next on Thursday, July 19 at 7:30 p.m., under the baton of guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and then the orchestra travels to Asia for concerts in Taiwan, China, and South Korea.

The brainchild of Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s Executive and Artistic Director, NYO was inspired by his experiences as a student musician in Great Britain’s national youth orchestra. James Ross, conductor of Spain’s Orquestra Simfònica del Vallès and the Alexandria Symphony, just outside Washington, D.C., has been the group’s resident music director from the beginning.


Orchestra Director James Ross during an NYO-USA side-by-side rehearsal with faculty; photo: Stephanie Berger.

“My job is to set the orchestra up flexibly enough so they can succeed immediately responding to whatever comes out of these great conductors,” says Ross. “My work here has been vital for them, but also a great source of renewal for me as a musician. I feel like I rediscover through their energy what it’s like to have a fresh relationship with classical music.”

The Carnegie Hall program includes Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 and Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F Major with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, as well as the world premiere of Brass Tacks, a new work by composer Ted Hearne, specially commissioned by Carnegie Hall for NYO-USA.

“Ted Hearne is a wonderfully inventive Los Angeles composer who’s trying to find a way to bring together the musical vernacular of kids nowadays with classical music composition,” says Ross. “Almost every year, Carnegie Hall has commissioned a piece and it’s very often younger American composers. There’s a special feeling among the kids in the orchestra that this is a piece that’s a voice of their own generation, or maybe ten to fifteen years older, and they take it very much to heart.”

“It a great orchestra,” says Jonathan Jalbert, a clarinetist from Houston returning for his second year. “You get to meet lots of really cool people from all over the country, and getting to travel is a big highlight. I’m half-Asian and I’ve never been to Asia, so I’m excited for this tour in particular. There’s plenty of time in the residency to get to know people, so it feels like a community playing together and not just a bunch of individuals.”

Clarinetist Jonathan Jalbert, 2018 NYO participant; courtesy of Carnegie Hall.

Part of Gillinson’s vision for the group was to attract gifted musicians who are not necessarily planning a professional career in music. Jalbert, who just graduated from Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, will attend Yale next fall, where he plans to continue his music-making activities as a non-major. The diversity of his fellow musicians at NYO is something he values most.

Jonathan Jalbert in rehearsal with NYO-USA; photo: Fadi Kheir.

“The variety of interests is really special,” he says. “Some of my friends from NYO do crazy things that blow my mind. One of the new things is our YouTube channel, where we get to make mini-master classes, and that was actually started by one of my NYO friends. He’s an entrepreneur student at Stanford. It’s really cool to be around people my age who are starting things like that.”

Joining NYO at Caramoor is NYO2, a sister orchestra geared toward a slightly younger age group. Those musicians, ages 14-17, will continue on to Miami for a residency with the New World Symphony before returning to New York for a performance at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday, July 24 at 7:30 p.m. led by Carlos Miguel Prieto.

“With NYO2, we actually have the chance to fundamentally change their lives through the very act of discovering their talent, which might be a little bit less developed,” says Ross. He credits the professional orchestra musicians across the country who act as coaches with helping get both orchestras off the ground.

“I see in their eyes the thrill of encountering 14 or 16-year-old classical musicians and seeing what the talent is like. They get so drawn in and inspired by what is a real testament to the continuing power of playing an instrument and making music together. It seems to me that everybody comes out of the other end of their experience at NYO somehow made the better for it.”


Participants in the National Youth Orchestra of United States of America outside Carnegie Hall (2017); photo: Chris Lee.


Cover:  (l. to r.) Former participants Tatia Slouka, Fiyi Adebekun, Sophia Jean, Daniel Kim, and Serena Shapard take a photo with the NYO-USA and NYO2 posters outside Carnegie Hall (2017); photo: Chris Lee.


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