As the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America performs its final concert of 2014 at The Music Center’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, musician blogger Leah Meyer shares how she prepared to introduce Gil Shaham and Britten’s Violin Concerto during NYO-USA’s Carnegie Hall debut. Leah is one of 18 musicians who spoke from the stage throughout this summer’s tour. You can hear Leah’s remarks, along with audio of the complete Carnegie Hall debut, by clicking here.
The sensory overload right now on this plane is both distracting and delightful: the flashing images of the movie Captain America on the monitor above my head, the foreboding frivolity of “Della mia bella incognita borghese” from Rigoletto in my headphones, the sweet tang of orange juice in my mouth, the plush of my monkey-shaped neck pillow, and the scent of my neighbor’s goldfish that bring me back to my days of jumpers and playgrounds are all underscored by the rushing rumble of the “NYO Express,” as referred to by the pilot of our flight.
Over the past four weeks, I’ve come to expect—though by no means become accustomed to—such constant bombardment as a member of NYO-USA. However, the noise of cheesy snack crackers and an airplane pales in comparison to playing on the stage of Carnegie Hall. I paled too (and keep in mind that I’m already a natural redhead) as I prepared to speak to the audience, introducing the repertoire to a packed house at Carnegie Hall.
I know how to prepare for a normal concert. One of our activities during the NYO-USA residency included completing a survey of our musical experiences. A question asked how many concerts we’d played in the past 12 months. Several of my friends and I laughed in disbelief—how to begin counting? Like another friend’s wardrobe with “more long black skirts than anything else,” we’ve tailored our rehearsing and practicing with the goals of performance in mind. Though my pants don’t fit as well as they did two weeks ago, the metaphor still does: As we swapped black skirts for red pants, I also tried on a new concert (and concert preparation) experience.
In preparing the remarks I ultimately gave at our Carnegie Hall concert, I progressed through three main drafts, each undergoing scrutiny for inaccessibility, lack of clarity, and platitudes—all the fuzz that is nearly inescapable when trying to communicate the magnitude of importance with which you hold something in your heart, especially music. I memorized, cut, tinkered with a transition for hours, and rememorized, allowing myself the occasional indulgence of a boy-band hit from 2007. And yet, as I practiced the words out loud, the obvious rehearsed nature made my thoughts seem forced and my presentation unsophisticated. My voice itself even threatened to go hoarse. I wanted my words to seem inspired and extemporaneous; I wanted to give the audience no clue of my hours spent writing, nor of my inexperience as a public speaker.
And yet, after writhing in embarrassment while practicing in front of friends, I thought back upon the concert preparation of which I just wrote: Few performances—even those heavily based on improvisation—are truly extemporaneous. The repertoire I was introducing? We’d spent weeks rehearsing it. “Even Obama has a teleprompter,” my parents assured me. The less ashamed I was of my obvious recitation, the more natural it seemed. Performance is the sharing of something that requires great thought and effort. Through that lens, our night at Carnegie Hall was a performance to remember.
I spoke that night of the parallels between Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Britten’s Violin Concerto. From within deep pain and chaos—whether stemming from the Spanish Civil War as in Britten’s case or from social clashes and forbidden love as in Tony and Maria’s in West Side Story—both pieces yearn deeply for a place and time of peace. As young adults inheriting these realities, we too search for “Somewhere” beyond the cruelty.
There are many events, many realities, that we cannot prepare for. Some are not so simple as speaking on stage. Some are much graver, and there are instances where your audience may not want you to succeed. We are young, idealistic, and will learn this soon enough. But we have played on the world’s stages—eight of them, actually—and, as the world and its future is our audience, we strove to bring you the best.
Learn more about the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.