Debut of the National Youth Orchestra of China
By Kelly Kollias
in late july, the National Youth Orchestra of China made its debut performance at Carnegie Hall with steinway artist Yuja Wang and conductor Ludovic Morlot of the Seattle Symphony. Following the premiere, these 105 musicians, aged 14 to 21 years old, returned to China where they performed at premier venues in Beijing, Shanghai, and Suzhou with steinway artist Olga Kern. Preceding all of this, students also had the chance to train with some of the world’s leading orchestral musicians — including New York Philharmonic concertmaster Frank Huang — in a two-week residency taking place at East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Inspired by and following the model of Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, NYO-China is absolutely free for all students so as to ensure that no exceptional musician is ever turned away.
When Vincent Accettola first witnessed NYO–USA during its 2015 China tour, he found himself not only appreciative of the performances but also of the passion for classical music that was evident among young Chinese audience members. Their love was infectious. Throughout the tour, he spoke to various concertgoers who confirmed that this enthusiasm for classical music was not constrained to within the walls of the concert hall, but that there were millions of students learning to play orchestral instruments in China. Given the prevalence of national youth orchestras throughout the world, it seemed almost obvious that China would be on that list. But this was not the case. While China did care deeply about fostering their next generation of classical musicians, the overwhelming pedagogical culture was to prepare these students as aspiring soloists. Compared to their American and European counterparts, opportunities for ensemble playing were limited; genuinely national youth ensembles were nonexistent. With this in mind, Accettola returned to the United States determined to bring China a national youth orchestra of its own. Then a senior at Yale University, he reached out to his college suitemate Nick Brown to get to work on this unorthodox college startup. After several months of late evenings with Vincent, Nick, and Paige gathered around dormitory tables with laptops, writing and sending emails to resolve a host of catch-22s, the National Youth Orchestra of China began to take shape.
While all members of NYO-China are Chinese citizens, many members of the ensemble are students who are studying abroad in countries such as Singapore, Germany, and the United States. That diversity paired with the ensemble’s selection of Zhou Long, Tchaikovsky, and Dvořák for a blending of musical talent and culture. For Accettola, the son of a New York native and Chinese immigrant, the cultural exchange aspect of the project was crucial. With Carnegie Hall planning to bring NYO-USA to China via their concert tour, Accettola and his team were eager to create a reciprocal connection between China and the United States through NYO-China. Both ensembles received the assistance and hospitality of Ambassador Zhang Qiyue and the Consulate General of China in New York and, ultimately, this ambition for meaningful intercultural dialogue was realized during NYO-China’s inaugural season: first, with NYO-China’s 105 musicians playing alongside their 120 NYO-USA counterparts during a joint rehearsal at Purchase College in New York, and second, with both orchestras attending each other’s back-to-back performances at Carnegie Hall.
For some, NYO–China meant traveling to the United States for the first time, including sixteen-year-old violinist Mingyuan Ma from Shanghai: “I am excited to work with all these marvelous young musicians, and study with NYO–China’s teaching artists. This trip is also the first time I will travel outside of China. It will be a new experience.” For others, it meant reuniting with family members on other continents, such as sixteen-year-old violinist Xiaoran Qu who was born in China but grew up in Maryland. “The concert tour of China will open my eyes to the Chinese culture that I’ve missed living in America the past twelve years,” says Qu. “I’m really looking forward to visiting these cities and especially to meeting my family back in China. It will be an eye-opening experience.” NYO–China will also open new doors for some of the program’s teaching artists as well. Guang Chen, a professor at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, visited the United States for the first time to lead the orchestra’s trumpet section during the residency, expressing extreme excitement and appreciation for the opportunity.
Students had high expectations for the event, with one young musician stating that she hoped “to play the most fantastic music on a world stage.”
Paige Breen, NYO-China’s director of operations and logistics, agreed, saying “To the broader world of music, I think this will be a triumph of cultural exchange. Although classical music originated in the west, these students have made it their own and will use their skills to play pieces written by Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, and esteemed Chinese composers such as Zhou Long.
“They must now transform from a hundred and five talented individual instrumentalists into a cohesive ensemble,” Breen added. “I look forward to seeing how they rise to the challenge and adapt to their new settings.”
NYO–China’s debut marked an opportunity for Chinese and American people to come together to not only watch, but surprise themselves with how well classical music can provide a sense of unity between two seemingly different cultures. Reflective of steinway artist Van Cliburn’s international victory of the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow during the height of the Cold War in 1958, the performance embodied his unique legacy of demonstrating how classical music, in the hands of a master, has the appeal to reach across borders.