Looking back on St. Petersburg

July 28, 2013

So, this year’s NYO season officially ended when all of us musicians parted ways last Tuesday, and I’ve been back home for a few days now. I really had intended to keep the blog updated at each point in the tour, but unfortunately I eventually realized that that wouldn’t be possible. I mentioned this in my post on Moscow, but between traveling, rehearsing, sightseeing, performing, and running from one place to the next, it was next to impossible to find the time to write the kind of blog posts I wanted. So rather than posting brief, quick updates when I had time, I kept notes on paper and decided that I would complete the blogging when the tour was over. Because of this, I have a few more posts in the works, and these will show up over the next couple of days.

From Moscow, we took a high-speed train to St. Petersburg on Wednesday afternoon (the 17th). Let me say that the whole “white nights” business (see previous post) had me pretty confused when we arrived in the evening. It looked and felt like mid-afternoon when we arrived at the hotel at 10pm, and the sun was barely beginning to set at 11:15, when I took a walk around the neighborhood we were staying in. It was breathtaking, however, and I think part of the reason it is so breathtaking it because it’s so disorienting. There was something simply awe-inspiring about seeing the sun out yet knowing internally that it’s midnight.

And of course, it wouldn’t be a “white night” without the sun rising at 4am! The next morning, I got a relatively early start. It was the day of our concert at the new Mariinsky II, which opened this past May. Maestro Gergiev is the general and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre, where he is also the director of the annual Stars of the White Nights festival consisting of orchestral concerts and opera and ballet performances during the season of the “white nights.” Our performance was part of this festival, and, excitingly, we would also be the first American orchestra to perform at the Mariinsky II. During our time in St. Petersburg, we got the impression that Maestro Gergiev is something of a celebrity in St. Petersburg (though he was born in Moscow, he now lives in St. Petersburg).

Below: Advertisement for the Stars of the White Nights festival. (The green building is the original Mariinsky Theatre, and the edge of building visible on the left side of the photo is the Mariinsky II.)

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During our free time the day of our concert, a small group of us went to the Hermitage, which was a 45-minute walk from our hotel. (Walking there was a really good excuse to see a good part of St. Petersburg and get some sense of the city.) I had read about the museum extensively before coming to NYO, but didn’t think it was very likely that a visit would be in the cards, so I was pretty happy to have the opportunity to see it. It’s one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. It was founded by Catherine the Great, and its collection includes some three million works of art. Obviously not all of this is on display, but what is currently in the galleries is a huge collection nonetheless. It was a bit overwhelming when we first entered — just looking at the floor plan was overwhelming! The museum was packed with people (for good reason) and it was a bit hard to move around in some rooms, but we were able to see some famous and lesser-known paintings and a lot of really incredible Classical Greek and Roman sculpture. (Side note: I saw two more paintings by Leonardo da Vinci here, following the one I saw at the National Gallery of Art and bringing the grand total to three…which is exciting because art historians estimate that only about fifteen of da Vinci’s paintings have survived.)

Below: the Hermitage

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At our rehearsal that afternoon, Maestro Gergiev seemed excited to welcome us to his town, and especially to the Mariinsky II. There was definitely something exciting about playing in a hall so new that they’re still working on tweaking the acoustics to be just right. The music stands and chairs we used were also, perhaps appropriately, quite high-tech!

Below: interior of Mariinsky II (with NYO members onstage)

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Unfortunately, there were various illnesses going around after we had been on tour for a few days — not particularly surprising — and I came down with a cold the day of our concert. I felt lucky to be feeling a little bit better when it was time for the concert. They say that music is good medicine, and I definitely felt better after performing. Once again, the hall was acoustically incredibly different from the Kennedy Center and the Great Hall in Moscow. This time, the acoustics were much drier, which meant the sound didn’t resonate nearly as much, and the way each section sounded to the other sections was dramatically different from anything we had dealt with so far on the tour. I thought we made the most of it, though, and, for a fourth time, it was a total thrill to be on stage with such incredible colleagues in such an amazing place. Maestro Gergiev reminded us that we were in the “city of Tchaikovsky,” where the composer spent a lot of his time — plus, Shosty 10 was premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (now the St. Petersburg Symphony). Once again, the feeling of performing this music in a place where there was so much special significance to it — where it felt so “authentic” — was unbelievable. And again, the audience was extremely enthusiastic, leading Joshua Bell to have to play a second encore for the second time!

Performing the concert must have helped my cold, because the following day I was almost good-as-new, which was nice, since we had a day full of activity. In the morning we took the bus to Peter and Paul Fortress, which is “the original citadel of St. Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great in 1703,” according to Wikipedia. As we walked along the bank of the Neva (pictured below), I again found myself astonished by my surroundings. Once again, it felt unreal to be in Russia, amidst this incredible history and culture. The view of the Hermitage and the massive St. Isaac’s Cathedral from the opposite bank, where we were, was beautiful.

Below: the Hermitage and the dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral

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Actually, the reason we were at the Fortress was for an exchange with a Russian youth ensemble, the Capella Taurida, led by the conductor Mikhail Golikov. Members of the orchestra sat alongside members of NYO-USA, and we did a read-through of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” overture, which we had worked on a bit during the residency, on the side of our primary repertoire. We were encouraged to interact with the members of the Russian orchestra, and though I didn’t get to have any real conversations with any of the musicians, it was enjoyable to play alongside them and share in the common language of music.

For our last night in St. Petersburg, we went back to Mariinsky II — this time as audience members — for a performance of Puccini’s Tosca with several Russian singers and the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Maestro Gergiev. Although I have to admit to drifting in and out of sleep a couple of times (tour life is, not surprisingly, exhausting — more on that later), the performance was incredible. I’m still not entirely sure who played Tosca, but she had one of the most amazing operatic voices I’ve ever heard, full of dark beauty and power. The sets were also visually stunning and incredibly impressive. The stage slanted downwards from the back to the front, and the colors of the lighting set the mood perfectly.

Below: the set for Act III of Tosca

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To complete an already amazing day and evening, Maestro Gergiev had the Mariinsky II’s rooftop terrace opened specially for us after the concert, so we could see an incredible view of St. Petersburg. As the sun began to set over the city, Maestro Gergiev came to greet us, talk with us, and stand for photos. Over and over again throughout the tour, he went way above and beyond what was required, to make our experience that much more rewarding and memorable. In addition to being one of the most thoughtful and caring musicians I’ve worked with, he was one of the kindest and most respectable people I’ve ever met.

Compared to Moscow, St. Petersburg felt much more European. Though both were incredible, I think I preferred my experience in St. Petersburg, though that may have been because we had more time there to get settled. In both places, however, the cultural experience was significant: from experiencing new audiences to observing all kinds of people on the street to tasting interesting foods and hearing a different language, I’m grateful for every moment of it.

The next day, I meant to wake up early to walk around our neighborhood in search of souvenirs of some kind, but I overslept so long that I woke up thirty minutes before our early afternoon bus call to the airport. I was definitely sad to be leaving such an amazing and unique place, but I’ll admit I was looking forward to being able to read street signs.

Russia! (Moscow)

July 19, 2013

Wow! It’s been an insanely busy week. Between full days of travel, rehearsals and concerts, and occasionally questionable hotel internet, it’s been hard to get a blog written and posted. At the moment, NYO is in St. Petersburg, where we arrived the night before last. The city is in the middle of the White Nights, which is the time in the summer where the sun rises at about 5am and sets at about 11:30pm. It’s definitely something extraordinary to behold, though it does mess with your sense of time a little bit at first. St. Petersburg has been wonderful so far — but I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s a lot to say about Washington and Moscow, first.

When I last posted a week ago, my sextet had just finished our performance at the Russian Embassy. The past seven days have gone by in something of a blur. Last Saturday was our sightseeing day in Washington, followed by our concert at the Kennedy Center. I went briefly to the National Museum of Natural History, and then walked over to the National Gallery of Art. After going to the Met while we were in New York City, the National Gallery seemed much more manageable (in terms of size). I was thrilled to see a painting there by Leonardo da Vinci — the only painting by that artist in the United States. (I ended up seeing two more da Vinci paintings at the Hermitage here in St. Petersburg, but that’s a story for later!) Washington is very hot in the summer, but I found it very pleasant to walk around the Mall and see the beautiful trees and flowers in full bloom.

I’ve always put the Kennedy Center, along with Carnegie Hall, on a pedestal as a high point in a musician’s life (rightfully so, I suppose). It was incredibly exciting, for me, to step onto the stage for our dress rehearsal there. One thing we’ve learned as an orchestra throughout this past week of dress rehearsals and concerts in unfamiliar halls, is how hard it is to adjust to a new space in a relatively brief amount of time. That has probably been one of our larger challenges to overcome this week, in the three halls we’ve played in — especially since we were so used to the Performing Arts Center at Purchase, after two weeks of rehearsals there.

Below: Backstage at the Kennedy Center
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It’s hard to know what to say about any concert — as I mentioned following our Purchase performance — but what I can say about the Washington concert was that there was an incredible electricity and energy there that was definitely more apparent than in our Purchase concert. I think it had to do with the feeling that we had worked out some of the small kinks by having the debut performance at Purchase — this allowed us to be more confident (not that we weren’t confident at Purchase) and play at an even higher level. It also helped that the audience (we played for a sold-out hall) was extremely supportive. Many parents and families came to hear us in Washington (including my own — certainly much easier to come to Washington than to Russia or London!) and that definitely added to the energy in the room. I think the concert left most of us feeling very satisfied. It was also nice to see my parents and other extended family who came!

Sunday was another moment of high excitement — we would officially be leaving the States for the overseas part of our tour. Of course, as often seems to be the case with large-group travel, plane delays caused logistical problems, high stress, and general fatigue among the musicians and the rest of the tour party. To make a long and not very interesting story short, my small group ended up waiting at the airport for several hours, before finally leaving on our flight to London, where our transfer to Moscow was held for us. For the way things were looking at the outset, everything turned out wonderfully. Fast forward about 20-something hours (not counting time changes), we landed at Moscow’s Domodoveo Airport — on my birthday — and stepped into Russia for the first time. A huge public thanks (from myself and all the NYO musicians) to Carnegie Hall, for making travel logistics, including Russian visas and pages of customs paperwork, go remarkably smoothly.

We arrived at our hotel in Moscow’s city center, a 10-minute walk from the Red Square, at around 10:30 that evening, where we were served a late dinner (perhaps not so late going by European eating times). I told a friend, “These two days have been the longest day ever” — and to extend the “day” even longer, we were given the option to walk into the Red Square after dinner that evening to get our first real look at Russia. Partly because I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to see the famous sights of the Red Square, and partly because I wanted to do something other than travel in a plane on my birthday, I decided to go.

It was raining lightly, the sun was still setting, and as we approached the entrance to the Red Square and I saw the famous domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in the distance, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in some surreal dream that had absolutely no grounds in reality. I couldn’t seem to wrap my mind around the fact that I was in Russia, looking at these iconic onion-domes in person — images I had seen for years growing up, in books, movies, and on television — in this foreign place I would have had so little opportunity to travel to if it wasn’t for NYO. Even now, in St. Petersburg, something is still not totally sinking in, and it may take a while for whatever it is to really hit me.

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The following day, it was already time for our concert in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. First, in the morning, when the weather was sunny and pleasantly warm, a few of us went back to the Red Square, to walk around a bit more and see St. Basil’s Cathedral close-up. I also stood in line to see Lenin’s Mausoleum, where the Russian leader’s embalmed body is on display. It was remarkable to think of all the history in this square-milage of Moscow, to remind myself of everything that had occurred there.

It was equally astonishing to walk into the Moscow Conservatory and remember all the famous Russian musicians who have studied, taught, and performed there. In the Great Hall, where we gave our concert, the walls are lined with oil portraits of famous composers, including Bach, Mozart, and obviously Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky, appropriately for NYO’s program, was positioned directly above stage right, overlooking the orchestra. This was an important moment for us — the first time we would play our Russian and Russian-inspired program in Russia. Both Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich obviously have huge connections to Moscow (and St. Petersburg, of course) and the feeling of performing this music there was akin to performing our Gershwin encore in Washington, or, perhaps more generally, like reading a foreign-language book untranslated.

It was also very interesting to see for the first time how Russian audiences compared to the US audiences we are all used to. Before the concert, I was entirely unsure what to expect. Would they be as warm as the audiences we had received in the US? Would they have different ways of showing equivalent support? As it turned out, they were extremely enthusiastic. After Joshua Bell finished the Tchaikovsky Concerto, there were many shouts of “bravo” instead of wordless hooting and cheering, and rather than giving a standing ovation, they did a maneuver where they all began to clap in sync with one another (some people did stand up). In fact, they were so enthusiastic about Bell’s performance that, for the first time during our tour, he performed two encores instead of one! After the Shostakovich, they were equally enthused, and seemed to enjoy our Gershwin encore very much.

Before taking a train to St. Petersburg, we spent our final morning in Moscow taking a tour of the Kremlin. Going in, I actually hadn’t realized that it still houses Russian government offices, so when I heard that “the President usually arrives around noon,” I was surprised. The Kremlin’s rich history was incredible to learn about — and see — from the golden-domed cathedrals to the tales of tsars and rulers of many centuries ago.

It’s amazing to be in Russia. The biggest barrier is obviously the language, and the different characters of the Cyrillic alphabet. But as a cultural experience it has been incredible, and I feel so grateful to have this opportunity.

To be continued: St. Petersburg!

The Tour Begins

July 12, 2013

Last night, the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America — a two-year-old idea and a two-week-old orchestra — performed its official concert debut at the Purchase College Performing Arts Center in New York. As was the case with our first rehearsal together, the concert last night is almost indescribable. I have to say something, though — it’s impossible to write about it, but impossible to not write about it. The very first notes of Magiya rang out, and the journey began. The concert hall seats about 1700 people, and from what I could see, it was almost entirely full. Last night was the world premiere of Magiya, so it was a very cool way to open our concert. A new orchestra, a new piece by a young composer. It took a couple minutes — for me, at least — to feel totally comfortable onstage, a combination of the new performance wear (which turned out looking pretty sharp), and the usual performance excitement transforming itself from displaced jitters into beautiful music.

Below: The audience arriving 20130713-012148.jpg

The second piece on the program was the Tchaikovsky Concerto, with Joshua Bell. This week I’ve learned a lot about how to sympathetically support a soloist as a member of the orchestra accompanying them, and it was fun to witness Mr. Bell creating the music onstage, and responding to that. Joshua Bell has a way with Tchaikovsky that brought the audience to its feet immediately after the first movement came to a close. The third movement was full of excitement, and the last minute of the piece, which is one of my favorite moments of music, ever, was brilliant. The audience went wild, and Bell came back to play his encore, which we had prepared earlier in the week: Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous “Melodie” from the Souvenir d’un lieu cher.

Then came the Shostakovich. What is there to say? Here’s what Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times thought: “The young musicians brought subdued intensity to the 20-minute, mood-shifting first movement. The playing was comparably strong in the ferocious, short second movement and the mock-dainty third. After dispatching the deceptively flowing slow introduction to the fourth movement, the orchestra tore into this crazed finale, which ended with a full-throttled race to a blazing coda.” (You can read the full review here.)

As someone actually sitting there, helping to bring this music to life, the feeling was incredible. From the opening notes of the first movement, the orchestra felt to me like a unified organism, responding to everything Maestro Gergiev threw our way. I’ve mentioned the beginning of the second movement on this blog a few times, but it’s for good reason. It’s one thing to hear this music, but I wish everyone could have the chance, once in their life, to learn an instrument and tear through the opening of this movement. I think that when you’re playing an instrument, some music you can just hear, but some music you can really feel. The first note of this movement cuts through your stomach like a knife — I don’t think there’s any other way to describe it. By the end of the concert, everyone in the audience was on their feet.

Immediately after the concert, our life on tour began. We quickly changed out of our concert clothes, picked up our luggage from backstage, and boarded tour buses to travel to Washington, DC, for our concert at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. (We arrived in DC at about five in the morning — it was quite the first taste of tour life.)

Today in the afternoon we went to the Department of Interior, where members of the State Department spoke to us about our role as “citizen diplomats” and ambassadors. Susan E. White (Cultural Programs Division Chief, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs) offered a nice quote from John Kerry, who recently said that “music is the international language of peace, possibilities, and dreams.” Both White and Anaida K. Haas (Public Diplomacy Desk Officer for Russia, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs) spoke to us about what it means for us to not only be representative American young musicians, but to be representing our country as a whole, and on many levels. They encouraged us to speak candidly with the young Russian musicians we will meet there (we’ll have a chance to play side-by-side with a Russian youth orchestra) and to tell them things they might not know about our culture, and learn all that we can about theirs.

As further preparation for our Russia visit, this evening we were guests at the Russian Embassy in Washington. Maybe I haven’t been to a lot of important places, but this was one of the most incredible and official places I’ve ever been to. The high ceilings in the ballrooms, the intricate chandeliers, the paintings on the walls — everything was extremely impressive, to put it mildly. The ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, welcomed us as well as Maestro Gergiev, who attended the event, and then several members of NYO performed chamber music in various formations. My sextet closed the program with the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Souvenir that we’ve been working on since the start of the residency. After we played, Maestro Gergiev was invited to say a few words. He spoke eloquently about the point in a musician’s life when he or she feels the need to give back in some way, specifically citing Sir Georg Solti, who created the World Orchestra for Peace when he was seventy-five, an ensemble made up of players from dozens of international orchestras, which Solti formed to “reaffirm the unique strength of music as an ambassador for peace” and of which Gergiev is now the conductor. He said that he sees a similar idea with NYO, except that we are obviously much younger. Finally, he said what a joy it has been to work with NYO — and I hope he knows how much of a joy it has been for us to work with him.

Below: The Russian Embassy, interior
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Below: Performing 20130713-012424.jpg

Between NYO’s debut on Thursday and performing for Maestro Gergiev and Ambassador Kislyak at the Embassy this evening, this week has been full of some of the most memorable and important musical experiences of my life. And tomorrow, the Kennedy Center!

“A chorus of a thousand voices”

July 11, 2013

Maestro Gergiev and Joshua Bell have arrived! Tuesday was our first rehearsal with Maestro Gergiev, and Mr. Bell joined NYO on Wednesday for some intense work on the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Before I left to come to NYO, this moment seemed so far away, and even now that it has happened, it still feels surreal. The palpable sense of excitement that has flowed as an undercurrent since day one of NYO peaked when we all assembled on the stage of the Performing Arts Center here at Purchase, sitting in silence as we waited for the Maestro to walk out.

He came out, shook our concertmaster’s hand, and immediately launched into the first movement of the Shostakovich, a piece that seems clearly quite near and dear to him. He said it’s “a great piece” for NYO especially — as Mr. Ross had alluded to many times, it allows us to bring youthful excitement and vigor in places, but also challenges us to find more delicate and melancholy sonorities and to develop a unified voice.

Finding our voice is something Maestro Gergiev has spoken of as well, but even more often, he has encouraged us to “sing” through our playing. In a tutti passage in the Tchaikovsky Concerto filled with eighth- and sixteenth-notes in the violin part, he encouraged us to play less “vertically,” and instead sing through the musical line. Speaking about the beautiful clarinet solo at the beginning of the Shostakovich, Maestro Gergiev said, “The public shouldn’t know that there are barlines” in the sheet music separating each measure. He explained that even though the barlines are there because of convention, the music has to feel as though they’re invisible. For one section, he said we should “play it like a chorus of a thousand voices.”

In another passage, in the second movement of the Tchaikovsky, where the music repeated almost identically for a few bars, Maestro Gergiev warned us not to play the exact same way each time the music repeated: “Repeat is danger. Do you want to play it like a sanding machine or like a musician? Always before you play, just think,” he told us.

When Joshua Bell joined us at the beginning of yesterday’s rehearsal on the Tchaikovsky (much to the excitement of us violinists, especially), Maestro Gergiev was running a few moments late, and Mr. Bell began working with the violins on the opening tutti of the first movement. As the recently appointed concertmaster and music director of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which performs without a conductor, Bell has a lot of experience leading an orchestra. This was the approach he took with us for those first few minutes of rehearsal before the official Maestro arrived. His demonstrative motions and expressive body language helped us feel the driven character of the music leading up to the solo violin entrance. He told us to play more like we were playing chamber music. “I really want everything we do to be like chamber music,” he encouraged. “That’s how I view this concerto, and any concerto, for that matter.”

Maestro Gergiev is unlike any other conductor I’ve worked with. His rehearsals are immaculately paced, and perfectly balanced between playing large sections and dissecting individual measures. His conducting style is extremely unique — he elicits the sonorities using his fingers and hands, literally shaping the phrases in the air. It’s been incredible working with him, and I’m very much looking forward to spending the next weeks under his leadership. Tonight is NYO’s official debut!

Also: NYO has been getting some good coverage in major US newspapers throughout the past few days. You can read a few of these articles from the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal. (Click on links to read the articles.) Additionally, you can hear Sean Shepherd speaking about Magiya in the video below.

Limitless

July 9, 2013

This weekend was slightly less rehearsal-heavy than last week. Before we arrived for the residency, we had the opportunity to select two “workshops” that we would participate in on our first Saturday here — among the options were composition, conducting, improvisation, and yoga for musicians. I selected composition and improv. These classes, which were about an hour and fifteen minutes each, were led by Sean Shepherd (composition — refresher: he is the composer of Magiya, the work NYO is premiering) and Jeffrey Zeigler (improv — the former cellist in the renowned Kronos Quartet).

Mr. Shepherd approached the composition class in a way that allowed us to look quickly through the history of 20th century music, from Mahler to Ligeti to John Adams, and he also took students’ questions about how he got into composing, his methods, his training, and more. The improv class was more hands-on. We were assembled in a semicircle across a stage, and within the first 20 minutes of the class, Mr. Zeigler had us all playing drone notes while each musician had 20-30 seconds to freely improvise. What I found especially interesting was that he encouraged and expected us to elaborate on our drones even when we weren’t the one doing the main improvisation. For the most part, there were no parameters set. (Before we began playing for the first time, Mr. Zeigler said, “The only rule is that you aren’t allowed to make any mistakes,” meaning that no matter what we did or what happened, nothing was a mistake, and every sound we made was fair game.) I found the class very liberating, in a way. Especially after a week of intensely trying to accurately bring to life the notes Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich wrote 50 or 150 years ago, it required a very different mindset to create the notes right there in the present, with no boundaries. I can’t be sure, but improvising might have even helped the way I approached the Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, or at least broadened my mindset.

On Saturday afternoon, Mr. Shepherd sat in on our rehearsal of Magiya, and told us a bit of background on the piece. Magiya means “magic” in Russian, but Mr. Shepherd explained that this isn’t the kind of fairytale magic that we’re used to in our culture, but rather a kind of “everyday magic,” which was something he came across in Russian literature and culture when working on the piece. The piece is supposed to be a celebration — it will be the first thing our audience hears NYO play at each concert.

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Interlude: New York City

Sunday was our day off, so we took a day trip into NYC to sightsee and hear the Philharmonic perform. In the morning, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is so overwhelmingly large that no matter how many times you go, there is always something more to see. My favorite parts were the incredible Roman wall paintings with impressively bright pigments and ornately detailed architectural scenes, and the naturally-lit courtyards where Greek and Roman statues were displayed.

The Philharmonic performed a “Summertime Classics” afternoon concert that featured music of John Adams, Offenbach, Strauss, and Holst’s “The Planets” (the last of which featured projected images of each planet from NASA). The Philharmonic was incredible to hear, especially in the midst of such an intense summer of orchestral playing. The conductor, Bramwell Tovey, offered entertaining (sometimes very funny) and interesting light-hearted commentary between each piece. Following the concert we had a meet-and-greet with three members of the orchestra and their personnel manager, who offered us tips on touring with an orchestra — how to stay active, awake, hydrated, non-jetlagged, and in shape. They also told us about how they came to be in the New York Philharmonic, which was interesting to hear as someone intending to pursue music professionally.

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Everyone involved in NYO, staff included, has a shirt with one word across the front in bold white letters: limitless. We are one week into the program (our first rehearsal was last Monday night) and the distance we’ve come since then has been mind-blowing to me. As Maestro Ross pointed out yesterday, this is an orchestra that didn’t exist one week ago. He said that if this is where we’ve come in one week, he can’t wait to hear where we end up in another week.

He said it eloquently: “The idea came from Carnegie Hall — a bunch of us put our heads together about how to make this great for you — but the only way it’s turning out great is what you’re putting into it, and that’s the element we couldn’t count on.” He thanked us for being “co-creators” in this project.

At the end of the rehearsal, which was our last with him as conductor and “surrogate daddy,” he told us, “Now I have to pass you off to another daddy, and like any good daddy, I have to just let you fly.”

Taking in the Moment

July 6, 2013

As I write this, I’m listening to an iPhone recording from our rehearsal today of NYO blazing through the second movement of Shosty 10 at a breakneck speed. It’s intense, energetic, thrilling, and exciting.

On the way to Purchase, I stopped to visit with some family who I don’t see very often. As I was telling them about the kind of things I would be doing while in NYO, one of my relatives told me, essentially, to “enjoy the moment,” because those memories are what you can really hold on to. Sentiments like that can be used disingenuously, but I knew this was earnest — and important — advice.

It’s been about a week of rehearsing — the orchestra has rehearsed as a whole for about 18 hours — and I think I’m just now starting to realize the meaning of that advice. With a week going by as fast as this one did, I have seen firsthand how important little moments can so easily get lost in the blur of activity.

And I’m beginning to realize what all these little moments — attending a masterclass given by St. Louis Symphony principal second violinist Alison Harney, having a chamber music coaching with Robert Chen, and a giant NYO water balloon toss on the 4th of July (to name just a few) — look like on a larger scale. Even if I thought the magnitude of being here was finally setting in last Sunday when I arrived after months of preparation, this week proved that it took more than just showing up here to realize what this opportunity means.

To illustrate this, I’ll very briefly recap the highlights of my past few days. On Thursday, the violinists took part in masterclasses with Mr. Chen and Ms. Harney (some performed and the rest watched). I attended Ms. Harney’s. She offered one student tips on “grounding” herself at the beginning of several difficult runs in Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole and tried to bring out the operatic qualities of Mozart’s 5th violin concerto with another. On Friday, my sextet also had a coaching with Mr. Chen, in which he encouraged us to make more of the rustic, “village marketplace” feeling of the Tchaikovsky Souvenir that we will perform later this week in Washington.

Friday’s full orchestra rehearsal was especially fun for the violinists, since Robert Chen played the solo part of the Tchaikovsky Concerto with us in preparation for when Joshua Bell arrives next week. Of course it was amazing to hear the fantastic Mr. Chen play — he has one of most incredible sounds of any violinist I’ve heard — but for me and many others, it was equally rewarding to hear all the elements of this monumental piece finally come together.

In our full orchestra rehearsals, Maestro Ross has continued to urge us to come together and find our own voice as an orchestra. Yesterday, he said that in our first read-through just days before, our energy was very evident, but so was our chaos, and he commended us for what we had done in those few days to work towards creating something special as our final product.

The work continues on Monday after a day trip tomorrow to NYC to sightsee and hear the Philharmonic!

A Busy Week!

July 4, 2013

When I decided to keep a blog about my time with NYO, I realized I’d be busy. I’m trying to post as frequently as possible, not only to share my experiences here, but to keep everything organized in my mind, as well. It can be hard to keep everything from blurring together, simply because there is so much music that happens every day (by the way, that’s definitely a good thing, in case there was any doubt)!

Tuesday morning was our real in-depth full rehearsal. Since I haven’t mentioned him yet on this blog, James Ross is our conductor for most of the residency, before Maestro Gergiev arrives — in his own words, NYO’s “surrogate daddy.” Maestro Ross is the Director of Orchestral Activity at the University of Maryland, Artistic Director of the National Orchestral Institute, and Associate Director of the Conducting Program at Juilliard. (Needless to say it’s been exciting to work with him.) On Tuesday, Maestro Ross explained that from our read-through the previous night, he could tell NYO would have very little issue playing loud and exciting music. Because of this, he began the rehearsal by saying that we would do some work slightly under performance tempo in order to make sure we could learn to truly “care about every single note.” With this general perspective guiding us, we worked on unifying several parts of the third and fourth movements of the Shostakovich. We also read through our encore piece!

On Tuesday evening, we attended a lecture by David Wallace, a violist (and Juilliard professor) on the lives and music of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, and how particular circumstances influenced what they put into the pieces we’re playing. For Tchaikovsky, as many people know, it was his failed marriage and subsequent love for the young violinist Josef Kotek which inspired him to write his Violin Concerto. Shostakovich wrote his Tenth Symphony after Josef Stalin’s death, following years of struggling to please the Soviet Regime and its leader.

This historical background definitely resonated with me in Wednesday’s string sectional (led by Maestro Ross), where we continued to work on accessing appropriate moods and tone colors for the Shostakovich string sound. For the entire orchestra, this kind of work has been a large part of our rehearsals on the symphony — truly being able to develop the wide range of emotions Shostakovich expresses, from tenderness and melancholy to desperation and hysteria (especially in the second movement).

We’ve also been working on the Tchaikovsky (sans soloist). In this and in all of our repertoire, Maestro Ross has purposely been flexible in his tempo choices in sections as well as whole movements, in order to prepare us for working with an entirely different conductor — Maestro Gergiev — next week. I haven’t been in too many situations where one conductor has largely prepared the orchestra and another has taken over leading up to performances, so even though this kind of rehearsal can be challenging, it’s definitely the best way to prepare for whatever anyone might toss our way.

Yesterday (Wednesday) we all took part in a Feldenkrais workshop led by Aliza Stewart, a leading Feldenkrais trainer, which was different from anything I have ever encountered. The emphasis, as I understood it, was to be more aware of our movements and be more thoughtful about doing motions that are natural and that best serve the purpose we are trying to achieve. As musicians, this is obviously very pertinent, and the class was tailored to our needs.

Finally (and briefly)… My chamber ensemble has been rehearsing the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. It’s a very tricky piece, partly individually but mainly ensemble-wise. There are a lot of intricate parts that have to be appropriately brought out of the texture in order for the music to sound coherent. It’s a piece I have wanted to play for a long time, so I’m glad to finally have the opportunity.

Thanks for reading this incredibly long-winded post! I’m a day behind on writing, but I will try to touch on everything important at some point!

Below: Rehearsing (official NYO-USA photo by Chris Lee)
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Below: A poster for NYO’s first performance
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First Day

July 1, 2013

Today was the first full day of the NYO residency, and it was pretty exhausting. After violin seating auditions in the morning, we had an all-violin sectional with Robert Chen, the fantastic concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This was the first time our section played together, and the magnitude of the group sound caught me off guard. Mr. Chen emphasized the importance of the back of the section being the beginning of a wave of energy that travels to the front of the section — as opposed to the front dragging the back of the section along with them. He also helped us find some of the unique sonorities that Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony demands of the string section.

After dinner was finally the moment everyone had been waiting for: NYO’s first rehearsal as a complete ensemble. Even though many of us were tired after the long day, we read through the Shostakovich front-to-back, as well as Magiya, the commissioned work by American composer Sean Shepherd. People always say how difficult it is to use words to describe music, and that’s definitely the case here, with this experience. I can say, though, that the beginning of the second movement of the Shostakovich — it opens with intense, hammer-like blows in the strings’ lower registers — has been something I’ve been familiar with as a listener for many years and as a player for many weeks, and to finally get the opportunity to experience it as part of this massive, 120-person orchestra was incredible. It’s very inspiring to be around so many talented people.

I definitely won’t be alone in saying that I can’t wait for the next few days and weeks. Our next rehearsal together is in less than 12 hours!

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Below: Purchase College campus (after I was caught in a torrential rainstorm) 20130701-224357.jpg

Below: the Performing Arts Center, where many of our rehearsals will take place20130701-224713.jpg

Something Different

June 30, 2013

For basically every summer since I started playing the violin, I’ve done some sort of summer music program. First it was the Blue Lake Suzuki Camp, where we stood in rows, shortest in the front and tallest in the back, breathing in bugs and sawing away on “Lightly Row.” A few years later it was my first sleep-away camp at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Northern Michigan; I played in the “Intermediate Symphony Orchestra” and attended potentially exciting but ultimately awkward co-ed mixers, a chance to leave my blue shorts and red belt in a heap and slip on khakis and a button-down. More recently, the Chautauqua Music Festival offered intensive orchestral study at New York’s beautiful Chautauqua Institution.

Today, I arrived at this year’s summer adventure: the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America. You can read more on the About page and on Carnegie Hall’s website — NYO-USA is a program of Carnegie Hall — but basically, the orchestra is a new initiative to create a strong youth orchestra for our country, something that many countries have but that the US has lacked in the past. So today, 119 other young musicians and I arrived at Purchase College in New York to begin the two-week residency that will precede our international tour. At the welcome meeting, we were told by Clive Gillinson, the executive director of Carnegie Hall, that we are not only here to represent ourselves as the young musicians of our country, but we are also acting as cultural ambassadors to the places we will visit. He explained that we, as musicians, can do wonderful things for cultural relations in a very different way than treaties and international laws can.

I think I didn’t really realize until I got here the magnitude of this program. Of course I knew all the incredible stuff it entailed, but it didn’t quite hit me until I arrived just how much went into planning it. The idea has been in the works for way longer than us musicians have known about it, and all of the staff expressed their excitement today that this day had finally arrived, that the first National Youth Orchestra was all together in one place for the very first time. Tomorrow evening will be the first time we play together, which will definitely be thrilling for all of us musicians and, I imagine, for the staff as well.

Most of this blog will be posts about my daily experiences with NYO. I’ll also try to post photos where possible. I hope you enjoy!

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