Itzhak Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut with the NYYS. So did Alisa Weilerstein. Now this first-rate music-education program marks a milestone
More Than a Training Ground
That freshness is still there. On that Sunday afternoon, the orchestra began rehearsal with two movements of Dvorak at the DiMenna Center, a rehearsal and performance space in midtown Manhattan. An orchestra of 100 sat in front of conductor Gersen’s podium. Six young conducting students sat in the back, scores in front of them and pencils in hand, their heads bobbing with the beat. On the other side was a recruiter from USC’s Thornton School of Music, lanyards and bags ready to hand out at break.
The playing level was consistently high. While intonation wasn’t perfect, it was consistently good. Rhythm wasn’t an issue. Even the backs of the string sections were engaged, playing all the notes. It was early in the season, but everyone appeared to have learned their parts. There was no chatting in the rests, and the young musicians actually stopped playing when Gersen stopped conducting.
Before the rehearsal, Gersen, in his first season as music director, was clearly exhausted. He had flown in from Miami that morning, where he is assistant conductor of the New World Symphony—five minutes before the rehearsal, he was inhaling a chicken panini. “I’ve found my approach has been to not treat them like students, and no different than when I go to New World and rehearse them,” says Gersen, who the students call by his nickname, J.D. “I think they rise to the occasion.”
In the rehearsal, it was like Gersen had flipped a switch, literally dancing around the podium. Much of his conducting is about energy and large gestures, not little details. He smiles when he hears something he likes, or sections that he finds particularly special. He’s also relentlessly positive, while still demanding. “It’s never going to be perfect,” Gersen tells the orchestra. “But that isn’t the idea. So we need not only 100 percent energy, but 100 percent concentration.”
The orchestra is not only a training ground for young musicians, but for soloists as well. At the orchestra’s first concert, in 1963, violinist Itzhak Perlman, then 18, made his Carnegie Hall debut with the orchestra. More recently, in 1997, cellist Alisa Weilerstein made her Carnegie Hall debut with the ensemble, performing Dvorak’s cello concerto.
“For me, it was like a pinnacle, because it had always been my dream to play Dvorak with an orchestra,” she says. “It was such a thrill, and fantastic to rehearse with them.”
"It’s significant, too, that they play in Carnegie Hall", says Cho-Liang Lin, the alum violinist. “The idea of going on that stage, and to experience the beauty and the incredible moment when you realize, yes, I am on the Carnegie Hall stage,” says Lin. “That’s a defining moment for a lot of players.”
A Supportive Environment
At the break halfway through rehearsal, several students gather to reflect on their time in the orchestra. “It’s the best!” says violinist Emma Hathaway, a bubbly 17-year-old who lives in New Jersey. “You play in other youth orchestras, and it just doesn’t even compare.”
Current concertmaster Samuel Katz has been in the orchestra since the age of 12, and is now a student at the Juilliard School. “One thing that’s consistent about the New York Youth Symphony is the spirit,” he says. “Every single person wants to be here and wants to improve the ensemble. The music making is always of a professional standard.”
The students list off some their favorite concerts. Hathaway loved playing with Hahn-Bin (who recently changed his name to Amadeus Leopold). Sam Zagnit, a 16-year-old bassist from Brooklyn, liked a commission by Chris Rogerson called “That Blue Repair,” with cellist Jay Campbell. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was “really great,” says Zagnit, adding that it’s been exciting to play so many Mahler symphonies. He’s also glad to have played orchestra standards like Strauss’ Don Juan, so when he gets to the excerpts they’re not such a big deal.
Violinist Joseph Morag’s favorite memory is from one of the orchestra’s rehearsal-intensive kickoff weekends. “When I was 13, we were playing Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé,” says Morag, who is now 16. “We’re sitting in this room with a bunch of windows, and it’s pretty cloudy, and we get to the part where the sun is supposed to come out, and it does.
“It was just the greatest thing.”
The conversation turns to leadership. Hathaway, who is now principal second violinist, confesses to have been watching Katz for the past two years. Then, Katz, the concertmaster, turns to Zagnit, the bassist, who is sitting principal for the first time.
“Great leading today,” the violinist says. “I just noticed it today, and it was really good.”
The New York Youth Symphony, joined by pianist Gary Graffman, will perform The McCrindle Concert March 24 at Carnegie Hall in New York.
Building Leaders: The NYYS Chamber-Music Program
The New York Youth Symphony's chamber-music program has no dedicated rehearsal or coaching space, but that's fine with violinist Lisa Tipton, the director of the program. "It's unlike schools and conservatory programs in that it's really like a workshop in playing chamber music in real life," she says. Students coordinate their own rehearsals, have coachings only every other week, and figure out rehearsal locations themselves. The coaches encourage the groups to get better at working together and resolving conflicts. "Some of the coaching is, how'd the rehearsal go?" Tipton says.
About 130 students audition, and 90 are accepted into the program and then formed into 24 groups. The programs of the NYYS are independent, so students are not required to be in orchestra, or another program, to participate in chamber music. There are also juries, master classes, and five Sunday evening workshops—ranging from yoga and Alexander Technique to studio classes—held throughout the year. The various activities are meant to be both musical and social, Tipton says.
For many students the master classes are a major draw. This season, they'll be taught by such gifted players as the members of the Shanghai String Quartet, violinist Pamela Frank, and violist Paul Neubauer. "They're some of the biggest names in chamber music," Tipton says.
In the spring, groups audition to perform at either Carnegie's Weill Hall or Symphony Space. For cellist Eric Jacobsen, playing at Carnegie for the first time was a highlight of
the program. Jacobsen is now a member of the quartet Brooklyn Rider and one of the founders of the popular chamber orchestra the Knights. He remembers rehearsing a
Brahms trio in his living room. "The idea of playing chamber music together as friends was central to the way I grew up," he says. "I met some really fun people, and it was the
first time I played at Weill at Carnegie."
For director Tipton, these final concerts can be emotional experiences. "At the concert at the end of the year, I'm almost crying," she says. "There are some groups that have had issues and really triumphed, and others where the music has helped them get through deaths in the family or other problems, They've grown not just artistically, but as leaders and human beings."