Magazine article Strings

The New York Youth Symphony Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary

Magazine article Strings

The New York Youth Symphony Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary

Article excerpt

Itzhak Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut with the NYYS. So did Alisa Weilerstein. Now this first-rate music-education program marks a milestone

It's a Sunday afternoon in October, and the New York Youth Symphony is rehearsing a movement from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World." The orchestra sounds good - the music is rhythmically tight, intonation is generally accurate, and energy is high - but music director Joshua Gersen just isn't satisfied.

There's an important second flute solo, and he wants the violins to play a softer tremolo. "You're literally like ghosts haunting the walls," he says.

The violinists play a little quieter.

Gersen, wearing an untucked buttondown shirt and jeans, tries again.

"Better. But there are three p's. I know that's a lot of them, but he means it," he says, referring to the composer's instruction to play pianississimo.

The sound grows a bit softer, but Gersen still looks unsatisfied.

Finally he squats down, while continuing to conduct. "I'm literally underneath the stand!" he says, arms waving.

Suddenly, the violinists' unbridled enthusiasm turns into sensitive playing.

Gersen can be demanding, because this is no ordinary youth orchestra. The New York Youth Symphony, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is not only an orchestra, but also a first-rate music-education program, including composition, conducting, and chamber-music programs as well as a jazz band. The orchestra draws students ages 12 to 22 from New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, although it has had members from as far away as Boston and Baltimore. Most of the string players are high school students and about half of the winds and brass are in college. The ensemble regularly plays new music, having commissioned more than 100 new works since 1984 from young composers. Participation is tuitionfree, although each program has a registration fee.

The orchestra plays with energy and conviction, musicality, and a much more polished sound than most youth orchestras. They regularly play concerts in Carnegie Hall that get reviewed by the New York Times. "The New York Youth Symphony's sound may not have had the polish of a professional orchestra, but Mr. McAdams [conductor Ryan McAdams] drew vivid, colorful, and often incisive playing from the young musicians," wrote New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini, of performance of a Mahler symphony last March. "The finale balanced episodes of hurtling power with passages of delicacy and grace."

A highlight of the orchestra's 50th anniversary season was a November 25 concert at Carnegie Hall featuring a concerto for four violins by Leonard Mauerer, titled Sinfonia Concertante. The four violin soloists showcased several generations of the program's past and present members: ChoLiang Lin, 52, is a former concertmaster, and Michelle Kim, 40, assistant concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic (she is not an NYYS alum). Samuel Katz, 19, is the NYYS co-concertmaster and Alice Ivy-Pemberton, 15, is in the chambermusic program.

Gersen, who is 28, conducted.

The orchestra has historically had young conductors, including Leonard Slatkin, David Alan Miller, and, most recently, Mc Adams. Most stay about three to five years, and then it's time again for new, younger blood. "He [conductor Myung-Whun Chung] was new, everyone was new," says Lin, the violinist, who was concertmaster of the orchestra under Chung during the 1976-77 season. "There was a certain freshness and eagerness about the whole experience."


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. …

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