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Hogwarts for Musicians

Barely one year old, the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, a program of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, has already established itself as a mecca for the country’s most talented young instrumentalists. In the words of Jared Murray—a cellist from Lanesville, Indiana, who played with the orchestra in its inaugural season last summer—NYO-USA is “basically Hogwarts for musicians.”

Like JK Rowling’s school of witchcraft and wizardry, NYO-USA provides a magical, life-altering experience for the 120 teenagers lucky enough to earn a spot in the ensemble. High-level music making is only part of that experience; no less important are the close friendships and broadened horizons that come from being part of an orchestra dedicated to nurturing lifelong musical ambassadors as well as top-flight performers.

NYO-USA is “basically Hogwarts for musicians.”

In summer 2013, NYO-USA toured Moscow, St. Petersburg, and London under the baton of Russian conductor Valery Gergiev and with violin soloist Joshua Bell. This year, the musicians introduce themselves to American audiences in a coast-to-coast tour that takes them from Carnegie Hall to Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. On the podium will be David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony, with violinist Gil Shaham as soloist in Britten’s Violin Concerto.

Many musicians from the inaugural NYO-USA are now freshmen at leading music schools across the country—including The Juilliard School, Eastman School of Music, and The Colburn School—but the program also seeks to attract players who will pursue careers in other fields. NYO-USA is open to all musicians ages 16–19, provided they are not full-time students of instrumental performance in a college-level conservatory or music department. As Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s executive and artistic director, told The Washington Post, many of the country’s best young players elect not to pursue musical careers. “One of the very special things about this community is that these are remarkable people who are going to make their lives in lots of different ways.”

Sean Byrne

A case in point is Sean Byrne, a returning violist who hails from Chesterfield, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Now pursuing a degree in chemistry as a freshman at The Ohio State University, the 19-year-old plans to attend medical school while keeping his hand in chamber music. “It took me a long time to decide that I wouldn’t go into music,” Sean says. “While participating in NYO last year didn’t change my decision, the experience was a reaffirmation that my passion for music isn’t something that I can live happily without expressing.”

Sean’s sentiments are echoed by Annie Wu of Pleasanton, California, who is also returning for a second season with NYO-USA. Music is one of several academic interests that are pulling the 18-year-old flutist in different directions. “This struggle has always been a source of some distress, especially now in the middle of my senior year in high school,” Annie says. But NYO-USA has given her a valuable perspective, in that many of her orchestra friends who haven’t gone the conservatory route are “still playing their instruments with just as much passion.”

Kartik Papatla

Cellist Kartik Papatla of Mequon, Wisconsin, is weighing his career options as well. Meanwhile, he has gotten a taste of the orchestral life as first cellist of no fewer than four youth orchestras in the Milwaukee area. Kartik, 18, calls NYO-USA “by far the most professional orchestra I have been a part of. The level of musicianship of the other members was very high, and the faculty and staff treated us like professionals emotionally and musically.” Last summer’s experience confirmed his conviction that “music, whether it be performing or advocating for music and the arts, will always be a part of my life.” The solid grounding that Kartik, Annie, and Sean have gained from playing in local youth orchestras and other ensembles enabled them to handle the challenging NYO-USA regimen without missing a beat. This summer’s schedule, like last year’s, starts with two weeks of intensive rehearsals and coaching on the campus of Purchase College, SUNY. The orchestra then goes on the road for another two weeks, playing concerts every other night between July 20 and August 4.

“It still amazes me the level of artistry we were able to accomplish in just two weeks, and the incredible family-like connection we all developed.”

Annie agrees with Kartik that NYO-USA hit the ground running in 2013. “It still amazes me the level of artistry we were able to accomplish in just two weeks, and the incredible family-like connection we all developed.

“Touring with a top-notch conductor and soloist taught us all to be flexible, reactive, and open to new ideas. At our last concert, I really felt that all our energies were melded together into the goal of creating really great music.”

As much as they look forward to touring the United States, the three musicians realize that last year’s overseas tour will be hard to beat. “I actually traveled with my high school orchestra to St. Petersburg in April 2012,” Kartik says. “But after traveling there again with NYO and having more freedom to explore the city on my own, I felt like I developed a huge musical and personal connection with the city that I hadn’t felt before. I felt like I was involving myself in musical history.”

Annie Wu

The climax of the orchestra’s 2013 season was an appearance in London as part of BBC’s popular Proms concerts. Sean recalls feeling both “amazed” and “extremely proud” to see hundreds of people camped out on the steps of Royal Albert Hall, waiting to buy standing-room tickets. Annie’s most vivid memories are of what happened inside the vast auditorium: “I remember performing Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony as being such an out-of-body, spiritual experience. The energy and outpouring of passion and love really overwhelmed me when we finished. I have never heard cheers that loud before.”

Returning home to the Bay Area last August was something of a letdown, Annie admits. “Suddenly, I didn’t have Andrew talking about the cool five-string bass in Russia, Sebastian whistling Shostakovich, Gergiev explaining a phrase, Royal Albert Hall right outside my window, or borscht for lunch.” At the same time, NYO-USA taught her that “there is nothing in the world quite like playing great music with great people. I’m pretty sure that every single one of us will never forget our summer and knows that music will always be an integral part of our lives, whatever shape it takes.”

Don’t miss NYO-USA's Carnegie Hall debut on Tuesday, July 22 at 8 PM.

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