05 Apr 2017

A Budding Conductor’s Insights on the National Youth Orchestra of the USA

When I tell anyone that I want to become a conductor-composer (along the lines of Salonen/Pintscher/Adès), I receive a variety of mixed reactions that range from enthusiasm and pleasant surprise to blatant cynicism, standoffishness, distaste, or general confusion.  Even blanker are the stares when I try to explain a student conductor’s study and audition process, such as the one which I undertook to apply for one of the two conducting apprenticeships offered by the National Youth Orchestra of the USA, a position for which I ended up being selected.  So, when Beverly asked me to write an article about receiving the “appointment”, I jumped at the chance to enlighten the readers of the Youth Guild Newsletter about the profession with which some of them may someday be intimately connected as professional musicians and which so inspires (and intimidates!) me.
NYO-USA is unique in many ways.  The idea was taken from Leopold Stokowski’s original, ill-fated attempt to bring together an All-American Youth Orchestra (1940-42) in order to foster and inculcate the exponential growth of America’s output of talented young professionals with which to fill the concert halls of the world.  Though the original NYO only lasted a few years, it has become increasingly clear that the re-vamped version, launched in 2013, is here to stay.  The admirable goal of the organization – which is formed yearly by audition to rehearse and tour for five weeks every summer with a different guest conductor and guest artist – is to create and simulate the experience of a professional orchestra, a goal which has been exceeded and expanded by the addition in recent years of non-instrumental roles for six students selected from around the country: an Apprentice Librarian, an Apprentice Orchestra Manager, two Apprentice Conductors (that’s me!), and two Apprentice Composers.
This summer, not only will I be able to represent Salt Lake City, USUO, and my teachers in New York and at Carnegie Hall, but also abroad in Latin America, sharing glorious music with the extremely talented student musicians of the entire “New World”, and being an ambassador for the creative, problem-solving, cooperative, and musical capabilities of the young people of the United States.   The orchestra is led this year by BSO Music Director and all-around genius/hero/role model Marin Alsop, conductor and professor James Ross, and contemporary composer Gabriela Lena Frank.  I will also be assisting and learning from Giancarlo Guerrero of the Nashville Symphony in the NYO2, an offshoot orchestra designed to provide opportunities for kids underrepresented in the world of classical music.  The repertoire is extensive, exciting, and crucial for developing one’s career, including Mahler’s 1st, Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919), Copland’s Billy the Kid Suite, and of course a commission by Frank.
But the age-old saying about how one gets to Carnegie Hall is not wrong; this incredible opportunity was afforded me by hard work, lots of practicing, much coaching from my teachers Rei Hotoda, Yuki MacQueen, and Devin Maxwell, almost 200 audition takes, and a bit of luck (now is a good time to be a young woman interested a conducting career).  The recorded audition itself was intensive and exhaustive, but rewarding and positive in that it did not require unrealistic previous experience or extensive podium time.  In fact, it encouraged applicants without any experience, tabulae rasae, if you will.  The whole point of the program is to provide an extremely rare conducting opportunity for an underserved age group.  So instead of requiring 10-20 minutes of recorded performances with professional orchestras demonstrating a wide repertoire, as many programs for young conductors do, the audition tapes were just me and my unlovely voice, as well as an invisible and only slightly imaginary hundred-piece orchestra crammed into my living room, which my parents helped me convert into a makeshift studio for the month of December.  In addition to simultaneously conducting and singing (!) three excerpts from Mahler 1, the audition also required a short solo and orchestral excerpt on my instrument (violin), two video essays and a written biography, and multiple recommendations.  Once I was notified of my position as a finalist in late January, I then had a phone interview with the two directors of Artist Training Programs at Carnegie Hall.  The ten or so days before my notification were tense and seemed much longer than their 240 hours!
As I will be in the youngest age group permitted into the orchestra this year, and have actually very little if no conducting experience, I can honestly say that I did not expect anything to come of my application.  I took it as mere motivation to actually just knuckle down and start conducting, as a process from which to discover my weaknesses and strengths more than anything else.  And even though I have gained the best possible outcome from the experience, I know that even if I had not won the apprenticeship, I still would have learned so much in such a short period of time.  The audition process itself was a much-needed boost of confidence and knowledge; I am extremely excited to study, learn, grow, and bring back to Utah the knowledge and experience I gain this summer.