Profoundly moving moments like this have become almost commonplace in and around New York in the summers since Carnegie Hall founded the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA) in 2013. The current ensemble — 110 players ages 16 through 19, from 33 states (and an American resident in Canada), was training at the same time under its orchestra director, James Ross, at Purchase College, part of the State University of New York.
I heard the musicians there in the days before and after the Pennsylvania visit, as they worked intensively on Mahler’s First Symphony and other pieces. The American youth orchestra will give its own concert at Carnegie on Friday evening, conducted by Marin Alsop, the music director of the Baltimore Symphony, to kick off a tour that will take it to Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia. In addition to the Mahler, it will perform John Adams’s “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” and a tone poem by Gabriela Lena Frank, “Apu,” commissioned by Carnegie for the orchestra.
“I’m trying to make you conductor-proof,” Mr. Ross said at one point, a statement that could be read in two ways. He meant, of course, not conductor-resistant, but adaptable enough to carry out the interpretive wishes of Ms. Alsop or any other conductor when they differed from his own.
By now, with some players returning from previous years, the American ensemble is a well-oiled machine, performing at what would be a respectable level for a professional orchestra. Next year, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, it will return to Asia, where it scored a resounding success in 2015.
And Carnegie last year expanded the program, adding NYO2 for younger players, 14 through 17, recruited with an eye toward diversity. This year’s group of 80 was also rehearsing in Purchase, led by the ebullient Giancarlo Guerrero, the music director of the Nashville Symphony.
NYO2 will make its Carnegie Hall debut on Thursday evening, fortified by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra who have been working and performing with the group. This side-by-side aspect, with more experienced players mentoring their juniors at every level, has become an important element of the Carnegie program.
Last Saturday, NYO-USA and NYO2 staged their own side-by-side performance at 583 Park Avenue, a converted Christian Science church, and added in 92 New York students in sessions for intermediate and advanced players, many of them members of the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York. For a run-through of two movements of Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3, a monster orchestra of more than 250 competed on equal terms with the mighty organ that has outlived the building’s churchly uses.
On Sunday NYO-USA was back in Purchase, hosting NYO-China for a barbecue and a side-by-side rehearsal. Unfortunately, the movements of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony in play, the third and the fourth, did not include the Largo, where Ms. Liu’s English horn might have been heard again. But they and a suite from Bizet’s “Carmen” drew lusty performances from an enlarged orchestra bursting with talent and vigor.
Unlike its American counterparts, the National Youth Orchestra of China is not a Carnegie creation. Though inspired by, and closely modeled after, NYO-USA, it was founded by three Yale graduates — Vincent Accettola, Nicholas Brown and Paige Breen, each now 23 and all committed to nonmusical professions — and is financed by a young philanthropist, Sabrina Xu, and the United States-China Youth Education Solutions (YES) Foundation.
And the orchestra, which will be conducted on Saturday and in a tour of China by Ludovic Morlot, the music director of the Seattle Symphony, differs in several respects from the Carnegie models. Its age range extends to 21, because brass players tend to start later in China than they do in the United States.
What’s more, while the American programs aim to spread the wealth among music-loving young players, and so do not admit students already enrolled in conservatories or college music schools, the Chinese orchestra relies heavily on them. To hear the faculty — notably including Frank Huang, the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic — describe it, conservatory training in China now somewhat resembles the Juilliard School’s a generation ago.
The students, that is to say, are pointed toward virtuoso solo careers and do not have much opportunity to develop ensemble skills. “It’s more like training athletes,” Qing Li, the principal second violinist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and an NYO-China teaching artist said. “We have to give them the idea to be creative, not just machines.”
Mr. Huang concurred. “Fingerings and positions are what’s easiest,” he said, “but the kids don’t react to color.”
What the faculty members of the three youth orchestras might all agree on is that working with these gifted and committed young musicians, collaborating at every level, is among the most inspiring and rewarding parts of their jobs.
“When I was young,” Mr. Wang, the Philharmonic oboist, said, “I wished to God for something like this.” Now he is providing it on two continents.
Continue reading the main story