It's a hot summer afternoon and the recital hall at Purchase College is abuzz with excitement and nervous energy. One hundred and twenty teenagers, from 42 states, are about to embark on an extraordinary musical and personal journey.
Clive Gillinson, executive director of Carnegie Hall, steps up to the podium to greet them. "Welcome to all of you," he says. "It's wonderful to welcome you here to the first-ever National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America!"
There are youth orchestras and summer music camps all over the U.S., but Carnegie Hall may have created the best music camp ever. For the past two weeks, some of the best teenage musicians in the country have gathered on the Purchase campus to create an ensemble that is a first in the States. Gillinson, who became executive director of Carnegie Hall in 2005, says playing cello in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain was a highlight of his life.
"When I arrived, I could not believe there was not a U.S. National Youth Orchestra," he says. "I think every country needs one, in terms of inspiring — you know, the best students inspiring each other."
So Gillinson and Carnegie's staff set out to find the finest musicians in the country, from ages 16 to 19, and began raising millions of dollars to bring the project to fruition.
"There were a number of things that we felt were important," Gillinson says. "One of them was that it should be free to all the students participating. We thought it should be something where anybody can take part, not that if you don't have enough money, you can't. So, obviously, that makes it more expensive."
Carnegie is doing everything in a first-class way. The instrumental coaches are principal players from major symphony orchestras around the country; the tour will play at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and in Moscow, St. Petersburg and London. And it didn't take much arm twisting to get violinist Joshua Bell to sign on as soloist.
"It's a different experience than playing with a great professional orchestra," Bell says of performing with the teens. "For them, ... music is not a job yet. It's still all excitement and joy. It should be that way for professional orchestras, too, but it's not always!"
Skye Dearborn is a 17-year-old trombone player from Sioux Falls, S.D. She says she was walking on sunshine when she found out she was accepted into the orchestra.
"It blew my mind," Dearborn says. "The first rehearsal, I was speechless. I feel so privileged to play with these kids who are, you know, I feel like half of them are going to Juilliard and Harvard and Princeton, Yale. And it's really awesome to be surrounded by the talent, 'cause I feel like I'm absorbing it, in a way. I'm really lucky to be here."
At the start, the orchestra was prepared by James Ross, who teaches conducting at the University of Maryland. Sixteen-year-old Mya Greene has played viola in youth orchestras in her hometown of Los Angeles.
"You know, sometimes it can be overwhelming — just drilling technique, getting people to just even, like, have some basic concept of the rhythm," Greene says. "But here it was like the opposite. ... It's like he had assumed that we'd already have the canvas and he was gonna start painting on it."
The orchestra spent over a week preparing for the arrival of the real maestro, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. Micheal Barnes, a 19-year-old percussionist from Lawton, Okla., found himself overwhelmed in Gergiev's presence.
"The energy that he brings to the stage — wow! There's so much," Barnes says. "And I like that he doesn't conduct with a baton. "He's not very flashy or showy about his conducting. Sometimes it's even hard to find the downbeat, but it makes you really hang on to the music more."
Gergiev, for his part, was excited to work with the young players and bring his considerable expertise to the music of Shostakovich's 10th Symphony, eliciting nuance and emotion from the orchestra.
"I will not simply welcome a beautiful sound. I will also try to make sure that it is a lot to do with the symphony of Shostakovich, to apply the abilities of these young musicians to precisely this score," Gergiev says. "There are many, many things which can sound very good! It doesn't mean this is a great performance of a certain symphony."
This past Thursday night, the orchestra gave its first concert, at Purchase College. They had spent two weeks not just rehearsing, but getting to know each other, becoming good friends. And after several standing ovations, the kids were abuzz again.
"We had a great concert," percussionist Micheal Barnes said after the show. "You know, Joshua Bell was a great soloist, as was expected. But Maestro Gergiev, really — wow, he just totally changed when he started conducting the real thing. He just brought all of the stops out. And it was just great. I think we truly became the National Youth Orchestra tonight."
The National Youth Orchestra performs at the Kennedy Center Saturday evening, then flies to Russia for the next leg of its tour. And next year, a completely new National Youth Orchestra will tour the U.S.