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New York String Orchestra: A Golden Anniversary

By Harry Haskell

Among the Big Apple’s many venerable music traditions, few are more beloved than the New York String Orchestra’s (NYSO) annual Christmas Eve concert at Carnegie Hall. Every December since 1969, several dozen of the country’s most promising young string musicians—along with a smaller contingent of wind, brass, and percussion players—have beaten a path to 57th Street to spend the holiday season sharing their music with audiences in a pair of festive programs that invariably draw enthusiastic, standing-room–only crowds.

This year’s concerts will be conducted by Jaime Laredo, who took over the podium from NYSO founder Alexander Schneider in 1993. Officially known as the New York String Orchestra Seminar, the competitive and highly demanding program combines the seriousness of a top-notch conservatory class with the high-spirited spontaneity of a jamboree. The New York Times lauded the orchestra’s debut in 1969 as “a musical joy from start to finish,” adding that “this was not music making by the book, but full of light and shade and supple phrasing.”

Swap Laredo’s name for Schneider’s and that rave review could have been written at any time over the past half-century. The NYSO Seminar is currently celebrating its golden anniversary, making it more than twice as old as the orchestra’s most senior members. Long organized under the umbrella of The New School’s Mannes School of Music, it’s one of the first renowned professional training programs that has an established home base at Carnegie Hall.

Selected by audition, the 60-odd NYSO musicians—all in their teens and early 20s—take part in an intensive 10-day regimen of rehearsals, coaching sessions, workshops, and performances. This month, they will be joined on stage by a passel of NYSO alums who have distinguished themselves in various walks of musical life, as well as marquee soloists, including pianist Yefim Bronfman and violinist Joshua Bell.

Although the concerts are the “public face” of NYSO, “it’s the work that Jaime Laredo and his faculty do and the experiences of these high school—and college-age students that are really what the seminar is all about—new musical approaches, making lasting friends, learning from people who were the whole reason many of the kids took up their instruments,” says Mannes’s Rohana Elias-Reyes, director of the NYSO Seminar. “In order to ensure that each student is selected based on their musical ability, not their financial means, there is no fee to participate. We even cover local accommodations, meals, and transportation.”

Training and inspiring up-and-coming generations of musicians was a lifelong project for Schneider, a revered figure universally known as “Sasha.” Hailed as a “musical activist,” “the Johnny Appleseed of good music,” and “the Pied Piper of Vilna” (the Lithuanian city where he was born in 1908), Schneider was more than just one of the 20th century’s premier concert violinists. In fact, he interrupted a stellar career as a member of the legendary Budapest String Quartet to make more time for solo performances, conducting, organizing concerts, and working with students for more than three decades at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont.

In founding the NYSO Seminar in tandem with his long-time concert manager Frank Salomon, Schneider aimed to enrich New York’s present-day musical life, while setting his eyes squarely on the future. “Our hope is in the young,” he told an interviewer in 1971. “Two years ago, when people were complaining about the youthful rebellion and campus unrest, here were these kids at Carnegie Hall. They were disciplined, as any musician has to be. They were playing their hearts out and playing like professionals. They’d given up their Christmas vacations to come here and work.”

Over the years, first Schneider’s and then Laredo’s “kids” have grown up and taken their places in orchestras, chamber ensembles, conservatories, and universities across the United States. Many former seminarians have built outstanding solo careers, among them Jinjoo Cho, Pamela Frank, Bella Hristova, and Kyoko Takezawa, who will perform alongside NYSO on December 24 in Vivaldi’s exuberantly virtuosic B-Minor Concerto for Four Violins and Orchestra.

Cho speaks glowingly of attending the seminar as a young artist 10 years ago, fresh from winning the 2006 Montreal International Musical Competition. “It was an eye-opening and transformative experience where I got to meet the highest-caliber musicians of all generations, and learned what it means to work together to create something magical,” she says. “Friends I made at NYSO have become lifelong colleagues with whom I share the stage to this day, and I am grateful to be part of this community of artist alumni.”

Laredo, a versatile, inspirational maestro in the Schneider mold, carries on the tradition with vigor. Asked what he learned from his illustrious predecessor, he replies without skipping a beat: “the sheer joy of making music. Sasha had such incredible enthusiasm about everything he did in life.” The NYSO Seminar differs from other professional training programs, Laredo says, in that “we do two things at once. We have orchestra every day, but then we break up into small groups and play chamber music. I think back to something George Szell once said to me: ‘A great orchestra plays like a great string quartet.’”

Over the past 25 years, Laredo has striven to inculcate that sound and sensibility in the hundreds of talented young people who have flocked to New York City to play under his baton and polish their chamber-music chops with him and his colleagues. “To this day, The Cleveland Orchestra plays like a great quartet,” he reflects. That, in a nutshell, is his goal for the NYSO Seminar musicians: “I try to make them feel like every single person counts—that they each have to play their hearts out.”

Get Tickets
Monday, December 24 at 7 PM

Friday, December 28 at 8 PM

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New York String Orchestra with Alexander Schneider, December 24, 1969