The 120 members of the inaugural National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America come together for the first time on June 30. James Ross, our orchestra director for NYO-USA, leads the group in its first rehearsal soon thereafter. He shares his thoughts on his role in finding a unified ensemble among many individuals and the energy of the first rehearsal. In the Star Trek series, Patrick Stewart (as Jean-Luc Picard) used to say, “First contact is the most dangerous of all missions.” Though he may be right for intergalactic research, I have to say that in the case of NYO-USA, I respectfully disagree with the good captain. Although completely vital as a marker for the future development of the group, the first contact of an orchestra with itself and with the music they will be performing is usually a moment of vast and joyous energy release. The first job of a conductor in overseeing this moment is to invite that full human energy from all those in the room. Messy as it may be, there needs to be a giving, an “I have a voice!” presence right from the start. In an odd way, the first reading of a piece often has more the sensation of a concert than any of the working rehearsals that follow. It doesn’t necessarily sound like a concert, but it needs to feel that way before we clarify the communicative sweep, like a painter going from genius sketch to oil. The “I have a voice!” of 120 separate musicians needs to become a “We have a voice, and this is what we say.” We do that by discovering in rehearsal a musical direction that we can all travel and invest in.
It also helps any sensitively functioning group for its members to know a bit about each other's backgrounds. So for NYO-USA, we’ll be making sure that early on, the musicians have the opportunity to learn some of the essential qualities of their peers. James Ross is associate director of The Juilliard School’s conducting program and director of orchestral activities at the University of Maryland.