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NYO2: Changing the Face of Classical Music

The 109 gifted teenage musicians from 32 states who make up this year’s National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA) are a microcosm of the American melting pot. The liberal sprinkling of Asian, Hispanic, and African-American young musicians on the roster reflects a concerted effort to make the country’s premier youth orchestra mirror the society it represents, ethnically and culturally as well as geographically.

This year, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, under whose wing NYO-USA sprang into existence in 2013, is carrying its commitment to diversity a step farther by creating a separate younger orchestra known as NYO2, comprising musicians ages 14–17. This new ensemble is charged with reaching out to communities underserved by and underrepresented in the classical music field.

“We want to reach that pool of kids who may not have access to advanced musical instruction consistently throughout the year.”

Carnegie Hall’s initiative is in line with efforts by orchestras, conservatories, and other arts organizations nationwide to attract a more heterogeneous mix of musicians, audiences, and administrators. In addition to serving the important goal of making classical music more widely accessible, such programs bespeak a growing conviction that the future of the art form—and of the institutions that sustain it—depends on expanding beyond its traditional base.

Sarah Johnson, director of the Weill Music Institute, explains: “As we have gone through the audition process for NYO-USA for the past three years, we’ve been very aware of the number of younger musicians whose artistry is strong, but who would also benefit from focused training and participation in an inspiring community of their peers in order to take their playing to a higher level. We want to reach that pool of kids who may not have access to advanced musical instruction consistently throughout the year. In time, we think that the training, inspiration, and access provided by a free national program like NYO2 can help to expand the range and diversity of young people considering careers in the classical music field.”

Epongue, Ekille (Violin)
Epongue Ekille

One such aspiring musician is Epongue Ekille, a 16-year-old African-American violinist from Rochester, New York. Although she counts herself fortunate in having supportive parents and excellent educational resources on her doorstep, Epongue has to contend with deeply entrenched barriers to entry in the field. “I am from the inner city, a place where very few of my peers succeed,” she says. “I also happen to be black. This combination is definitely different from what you typically see in classical music, which is primarily suburban, white, and rich.”

Epongue learned about NYO2 through an official of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, a pioneer in the movement to promote diversity in the arts by advocating for black and Latino classical musicians. Despite measurable progress, “ethnic diversity remains a troublesome question for American orchestras,” New York’s classical radio station WQXR reported last year. “Just over four percent of their musicians are African-American and Latino, according to the League of American Orchestras, and when it comes to orchestra boards and CEOs, the numbers are even starker: only one percent.”

For Epongue, such statistics are not just abstract numbers, but hard facts that will ultimately influence her choice of career. “It is extremely intimidating to be in a field that is dominated by Caucasians and Asians. Going to watch the Rochester Philharmonic and spotting only one person of color like me is a bit discouraging at times.” On the other hand, Rochester’s Gateways Music Festival, which highlights classical musicians of African descent, has provided positive role models for Epongue. “Seeing other minority musicians really pushed me to become better,” she says.

Jonathan Lopez, a 16-year-old Latino clarinetist in NYO2, views the issue through a slightly different lens. His hometown of El Paso, Texas, he says, “is regarded as either the largest small town or the smallest big city in the country, so just the fact of it being small cuts down the classical and orchestral opportunities. NYO2 is definitely a program that will provide additional opportunities to help diversify our industry.”

Lopez, Jonathan (Clarinet)
Jonathan Lopez

The fledgling ensemble will benefit from Carnegie Hall’s artistic partnership with The Philadelphia Orchestra, which has long been recognized for its educational programs. After two weeks of intensive rehearsals, workshops, and leadership training on the campus of SUNY’s Purchase College, the roughly 80 young NYO2 musicians will cap their experience on July 2 by performing side-by-side with the Philadelphians under the baton of Giancarlo Guerrero in Verizon Hall at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center.

The chance to rehearse and perform with some of the country’s top orchestral musicians is a major attraction of NYO2 for Epongue, who “had a blast” when she and her contemporaries paired with members of the Rochester Philharmonic. For his part, Jonathan looks forward to participating “in an orchestra setting with a level of musicality that I’ve never experienced.” He’s especially excited about working with Ricardo Morales, The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Puerto Rican–born principal clarinetist.

To hear Epongue and Jonathan tell it, diversifying the ranks of American orchestras is as much a social as a musical mission. In Jonathan’s words, “it would bring us together to make beautiful art as humans, not as Hispanics or Asians or blacks or whites.” Classical music, he adds, “epitomizes beauty itself. When I think of classical music, I forget about all the evil in the world because this beautiful art is pure and free of any wickedness; it is everlastingly rejoicing.”

—Harry Haskell

Learn more about NYO2.

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