It's Like Hogwarts But Real Life: Behind Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Ensembles
The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, which trains young musician, celebrates its 10th year.
Each summer since 2013, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute has brought together the brightest young American instrumentalists for intensive training and performances on some of the world’s greatest stages. In the years since the creation of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA), two complementary ensembles have been added, each led by an all-star faculty of professional musicians. Collectively, the NYO programs comprise a broad range of musicians that reflects the exceptional talent and diversity of the country.
“It’s the closest thing you’ll ever get to attending Hogwarts in real life,” says Akshay Dinakar about his three years as a violinist in NYO-USA. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this summer, this free, audition-based, classical music training program for ages 16–19 has expanded the reach of its magic over the past decade by launching two other ensembles: NYO2 aimed at younger artists from backgrounds underrepresented in classical music, and NYO Jazz, a modern-day big band. So far, NYO programs have changed the lives of nearly 1,300 gifted adolescents who’ve performed in 17 countries on four continents alongside some of the most accomplished artists in the industry, including guest conductors Christoph Eschenbach, Marin Alsop, and Michael Tilson Thomas, as well as violinist Joshua Bell, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, pianist Emanuel Ax, and jazz vocalists Kurt Elling and Dianne Reeves.
“I was in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain as a kid from the age of about 16 to 19 myself, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” says Clive Gillinson, the Hall’s executive and artistic director. When he arrived stateside in 2005, he was shocked that no comparable initiative existed here. “I thought, ‘We have to create one,’” he says. “When you bring together the most extraordinary young players in the country, they all inspire each other. Then they take what they learn into their own communities, so the impact spreads much further.”
Since the program is provided at no cost to participants, talent is the sole barrier to entry. The ensembles are remarkably diverse, yet there are attributes all members share— especially commitment, discipline, and a passion for music. “If you look at the world today where so often people are just not talking to each other, to have young people connecting and creating friendships is so important,” Gillinson adds.
“It was transformative for me, getting to be around other young people who were also dedicated to music,” says NYO-USA alum Joshua Elmore, now principal bassoonist of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. A native of Cleveland, Elmore discovered NYO via social media and notes that touring with the ensemble in 2015 not only marked his first time traveling abroad, but was also his first time on an airplane. “It was a 13-and- a-half-hour trip from Newark to Beijing!” he recalls. Any trepidation he felt was offset by the connections he made. “The interpersonal relationships are what make the experience so meaningful,” he says. “I met some of my closest friends through NYO, and these are people whom I’ll be working with for the rest of my career.”
Not all participants go pro of course, yet the skills they gain while a part of NYO-USA are still invaluable. At the height of the pandemic shutdown, Matthew Garcia—a violist and recent Harvard University graduate— joined forces with fellow NYO-USA alums to launch Through the Staff, a nonprofit that provides virtual music lessons to aspiring musicians for free.
Growing up the child of Mexican immigrants in a small Texas town, Garcia saw the financial and geographic challenges many young instrumentalists face firsthand. His NYO-USA journey, which began with a one-season stint in NYO2, inspired him and his cohorts to help break down those obstacles.
“At NYO2, for the first time, I was in an orchestra and wasn’t one of the few people of color,” Garcia remembers. “I knew if I could succeed there, I could succeed anywhere.” Though he studied stem cell and regenerative biology, he credits “the lessons I learned from my time in the NYO programs as being instrumental in making sure I set myself on the right path.”
This summer’s NYO-USA consists of 109 outstanding musicians from 31 states plus Puerto Rico. The talented teens will rehearse at Purchase College, SUNY, before embarking on a tour of North America, including a stop at Carnegie Hall on July 14. Guest conductor Sir Andrew Davis leads a program that includes Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, violin concertos by Barber and Tchaikovsky with guest soloists Gil Shaham and Hilary Hahn, and a newly commissioned work by Valerie Coleman. The ensemble’s 10th anniversary celebration continues into 2024 with an NYO-USA All-Stars concert at the Hall in March.
“Before NYO, I was concerned with how I measured up against everyone else in the music world. After NYO, my thinking shifted to community,” says violinist Nikki Naghavi, a recent New England Conservatory graduate and one of the co-founders of Through the Staff. “It was no longer about me; it was about us. NYO truly gave me so much inspiration to help make the world a better place. When I got in, I was so excited. I knew that it was going to be an unforgettable summer. I had no idea that I was joining a forever family.”
Dinakar—who was part of the inaugural NYO-USA in 2013, as well as in 2014 and 2016—shares a similar sentiment. Although the Stanford University graduate is pursuing a career as a product designer, his years as part of the NYO family continue to enhance his life, both professionally (he invented Stikato, a popular mobile music stand that sticks to walls) and personally. “I’ve seen an NYO couple get married. I’ve seen NYO alumni become principal players in major orchestras across the nation. I’ve seen NYO alumni get promotions at Google and Microsoft and other tech companies. Another 30 or 40 years from now, I know I’ll still feel a closeness with these folks.”