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.
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.
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!