• Ilona Oltuski

National Youth Orchestra at Carnegie Hall: Signing up for excellence – and cultural outreach


Short of the national “red, white and blue,” the National Youth Orchestra’s featured dress code on Carnegie Hall’s stage incorporated red slacks, white shirts and black blazers, with Converse-style sneakers adding a youthful touch. Despite the teenagers’ adolescent appearance, they could be judged on a rather adult level of performance as they cautiously, but deliberately held back in Mozart’s subtle virtuoso passages, so as not to undermine master pianist Emanuel Ax, known endearingly as Manny to New Yorkers. The teens later befittingly let loose in Bruckner’s bursts of amalgamated power and dexterity, energetically coaxed by the veteran leadership of iconic Christoph Eschenbach.  

(photo credit:Chris Lee)

As music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eschenbach, known to enjoy working with young talent, understands not only how to lucidly direct young musicians through his communicative body language, but how to pull his audience into the elementary pathos and summits of musical drama.


Given the packed hall and high level of musicianship, providing a hopeful outlook on sustaining the future of classical music, one can’t help but wonder why it took until 2012 to reinstate pre-World War II attempts to unite young talent on a national level, specifically Leopold Stokowski’s short-lived effort to establish the All-American Youth Orchestra from 1940 until 1942.

For British-born Sir Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s leading force since 2005, the inspiration gained by young musicians partaking in such an overarching collaboration was the decisive element behind initiating NYO, which he implemented as a major community outreach program within Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute’s education wing.

For his vision for NYO-USA, Gillinson closely followed the principles of the established National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Following the practices of its model across the pond, the NYO-USA residency entails that the musicians’ two weeks’ preparation at Purchase College is assisted by principal musicians from professional American orchestras, and overseen by the orchestra director — a position that varies from season to season, leaving room to engage renowned guest conductors.  

  (Clive Gillinson, photo credit: Peter Murphy)


NYO-USA’s first concerts were held in 2013, and the concept grew more ambitious each year. The brilliant featuring of star soloists like violinists Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham and last year, pianist YUNDI, did not only up the ante, but opened international concert venue doors to the orchestra for future summer tours. Traveling as musicians with world-renowned soloists and conductors like Valery Gergiev, David Robertson, Charles Dutoit or now Christoph Eschenbach, and serving as ambassadors abroad, has a lasting effect on the young participants, who must be age 16-19 and hold American citizenship or a green card to participate in touring.


“They can’t be enrolled fulltime in a college-level conservatory or a music department on an instrumental performance major, that’s why many conductors and soloists who have performed with these young orchestral players, are so surprised by the high level of musicianship,” says Synneve Carlino, director of PR at Carnegie Hall. Two recommendations are also required in order to be considered in NYO’s nationwide, egalitarian search for excellence, in which participation is free–of–charge, no matter from where participants travel.


“New technology is partially to blame for spreading the word more swiftly,” explains Carnegie Hall’s Synneve Carlino about online applications like DecisionDesk, which facilitate the extraordinarily broad reach of modern application processes. “We put out the word and applicants can simply sign up and introduce themselves and their talent with a personal video clip,” says Carlino.

NYO-USA is a remarkable institution on its own, but Gillinson is not one to rest on his laurels. With the launch of NYO2 this year, he has already managed to broaden his original vision exponentially, catering to an even younger talent pool of musicians age 12-17 with the goal to expand classical music’s reach even further. Recognizing that musical talent forms early on, NYO2’s special agenda is to come into communities that are underserved and underrepresented in the field of classical music. This younger group of musicians will also form a natural pre-selection, potentially feeding into the orchestra, or other music-related fields. Among this year’s 109 NYO2 participants, two apprentice composers and conductors, as well as a librarian joined the program. Passion about classical music goes beyond the narrow field of the professional performing artist. Planting the seed of love for classical music-by-doing is essential for bringing the next generation not only to the stage, but into the hall.

#NationalYouthOrchestra #ChristophEschenbach #CliveGillinson #EmanuelAx #WeillEducationCenterCarnegieHall #CarnegieHall

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