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.


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Masterclass notes with Jeffrey Kahane

On Thursday December 1, pianist Jeffrey Kahane taught a masterclass during his visit to Salt Lake.  Four members of the Utah Symphony Youth Guild participated: Derek Banks, Alex Cheng, Sarah Shipp, and John Zhao.  Mr. Kahane made many points that can help all students of music, not just pianists, with their playing.  Youth Guild member Suzannah Rose listened carefully and took very good notes that she shares with us here.

Contine reading

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Ghost Light Podcast Now Available on iTunes

Listen in on conversations related to orchestral music with the Utah Symphony’s new podcast, The Ghost Light. Each episode is 10-15 minutes long (perfect for a commute!) and focuses on topics related to the orchestra and classical music. The podcast is now five episodes in and past episodes have included conversations with Thierry Fischer, Mary Anne Huntsman, Mike Pape, Paul Meecham, and Christopher McBeth. The Utah Symphony’s General Manager and Vice President of Operations, Jeff Counts, hosts each episode.

If you were to walk on the stage in Abravanel Hall or Capitol Theater when the venue was closed and no one was there, you wouldn’t be alone in the dark. A ghost light is a single bulb that is left on and placed on the stage after each performance. There are different explanations for ghost lights, which is a tradition in most venues. Some believe it keeps ghosts away from the stage. Others think it appeases the ghosts and keeps them happy. The pragmatic see it as an important safety measure to keep people from falling over things that have been left on stage (or off the stage itself!). In that spirit, each episode includes a bonus feature – a ghost story!

You can now subscribe to Ghost Light via iTunes, Stitcher, or SoundCloud or search for “Utah Symphony” in your podcast app. New episodes are released each Monday.

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Between the Barlines – Rei Hotoda

During the 2016 Deer Valley Music Festival, the Utah Symphony has launched a weekly interview series entitled “Between the Barlines,” which seeks to reveal aspects of guest artists’ lives outside of the music for which they are known, including things such as their backgrounds, their influences, and their non-musical interests.

Born in Tokyo but grew up in Chicago, award-winning conductor and pianist Rei Hotoda has emerged to become one of America’s most sought after and dynamic classical artists. A tenured Associate Conductor for the Utah Symphony, Ms. Hotoda has led the orchestra extensively in chamber concerts, regional tours, and in the Deer Valley Music Festival. For her solo performance with the Utah Symphony, Ms. Hotoda will be accomplishing the incredible and unique feat of conducting while playing the piano, performing Mozart’s 9th Symphony at the Deer Valley Music Festival on Wednesday August 3rd.

An open and friendly personality, Rei talks about her great balancing act of her familial life, her career, and her musical performance. In this interview, Rei discusses everything from her admiration for the Dalai Llama, to her opinion on the role of women in the modern classical music world. Rei also comments on her upbringing, talking about the influence of her mother and her very early piano practice beginning at the age of 3.

When discussing her performances at the Deer Valley Music Festival, “I’m really excited about doing these big concerts like the John Williams concert that ends the festival, as well as these chamber concerts that I’m doing where I’m playing and conducting a Mozart piano concerto. I’m thrilled, and since I’ve gotten to know some of the community up there, I’m really excited to share this music with them.”

Be sure to listen to our interview with Rei Hotoda here.

Check out details about Rei’s solo performance at the Utah Symphony’s Deer Valley Music Festival here and learn more about Rei Hotoda here.

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Between the Barlines – Will Hagen


During the 2016 Deer Valley Music Festival, the Utah Symphony has launched a weekly interview series entitled “Between the Barlines,” which seeks to reveal aspects of guest artists’ lives outside of the music for which they are known, including things such as their backgrounds, their influences, and their non-musical interests.

A Utah native, award-winning violinist William Hagen has emerged as one of the world’s most accomplished young violinists. William made his professional debut with the Utah Symphony at the age of 9, and since then, has earned international acclaim, winning third-prize at the 2015 Queen Elizabeth International Music Competition, the highest ranking American since 1980. For his performance with the Utah Symphony at the Deer Valley Music Festival on August 5th, William will be classic masterworks including Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

In this interview, William Hagen discusses his early childhood, playing for the Salt Lake Sluggers baseball team and his beginnings with the violin at the age of 4. In addition to his experience entering the challenging world of classical music and where he thinks the genre is headed in the future, William also exclaims love for more contemporary music, including the recent Justin Timberlake hit “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and legends like Marvin Gaye.

However, William’s earnest and down-to-earth nature shines when he talks about his home state of Utah, “From the bottom of the heart, I’ve been a lot of places and I love Utah. Every time I come home and I look at the Wasatch front I think, ‘my gosh.’ I haven’t found a more beautiful cityscape in the world…I’ve been to some pretty cool places and I’ve never seen mountains so close to the city. It’s a wonderful place and I always like coming home.”

Be sure to listen to our interview with William Hagen here.

Check out details about William’s performance at the Utah Symphony’s Deer Valley Music Festival here and learn more about William Hagen here.

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Between the Barlines – Graham Sharp of Steep Canyon Rangers

Press Photo 2

During the 2016 Deer Valley Music Festival, the Utah Symphony has launched a weekly interview series entitled “Between the Barlines,” which seeks to reveal aspects of guest artists’ lives outside of the music for which they are known, including things such as their backgrounds, their influences, and their non-musical interests.

The Grammy-winning band Steep Canyon Rangers has grown from their humble beginnings at University of North Carolina to become one of the most prominent faces of modern bluegrass music. On July 30th, with help from acclaimed conductor Rei Hotoda, the Steep Canyon Rangers will be performing new and classic bluegrass material, which will sure to make an energetic of lively folk music.

When discussing the beginnings of Steep Canyon Rangers, Graham Sharp, one of the founding members of the band, says, “from the start we enjoyed the company and enjoyed hanging out. We were just interested in learning how to play bluegrass because none of us had much of a background in it. We just spend a lot of time working on the music and didn’t really have any big ambitions for it. But over the years it just became apparent that we had chemistry for and it worked. We just plugged away at it and here we are now.”

In this interview, Graham also talks about the tight-knit and open nature of the bluegrass community, as well as the band’s endeavor to spread musical education with their festival, the Mountain Song Festival, which has raised over $500,000 for the Boys and Girls club. Graham also discusses maintain a balance between his familial and his musical life. Graham also comments on one of his most memorable performances at the Golden Gate Park alongside bluegrass legend Steve Martin.

Be sure to listen to our interview with Steep Canyon Rangers here.

Check out details about their performance at the Utah Symphony’s Deer Valley Music Festival here and learn more about Steep Canyon Rangers here.

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Mahler Memories: Ralph Gochnour

Ralph Gochnour, flute, 1956-99

An Orchestra of Teachers

When I started with the symphony in 1956, the salary had just raised to $50/week. There were only two woodwind spots in each section, and those were already filled by our principal Gene Foster and our piccolo player Ted Wight, so I was hired as second flute, but I also had to handle the library to earn a full contract. My wife, Rosie, spent a lot of time putting bowings in the violin parts. The principal players were getting $125 /week, and they could manage to live on that, barely. At one point there were 35 members of the symphony who, like me, were schoolteachers. Several of the districts were very good about it. When we had to be gone with the orchestra, instead of calling in and having them hiring the substitute, they had us get our own substitutes. Therefore we could trust the person who came in and we could have some continuity in the program. We would usually have the same substitute, as needed, for the entire year. Very often the substitutes were students in college that were going into music education. We were able to function pretty well. I could keep my program going because the students got acquainted with the substitute; the substitute knew what I was doing, and it wasn’t a big disruption. We had to have the second employment, especially if we had a family or were married: you couldn’t survive on the symphony salary in those years.

Making Things Happen

One year, around my seventh year in the orchestra and after we had started rehearsing in the University of Utah Union Ballroom, Abravanel decided he was going to raise the salary from $50 to $75 a week. It wasn’t just $5 a year, it was a big jump. Abravanel told the board that he had authorized the salary to be raised to $75 a week, and I think they raised his annual salary from $16,000 to $25,000. The treasurer of the board just went ballistic! “We can’t do that! That can’t happen!” Abravanel said, “Well, it’s done.”  I think he pulled his own salary back a ways, but not for the musicians; the treasurer resigned immediately, but the plan worked. He just said “it’s going to happen and the board is responsible for finding the money,” and it happened.

Unheard Of

It was unusual for the Utah Symphony and for an orchestra from a rural part of the United States, to all of a sudden be playing with Gina Bachauer in the Athens Bowl, and spending four weeks performing in Europe, traveling around, and receiving good reviews. European audiences were surprised to see many women in our orchestra at that time. There were no women in the Vienna Philharmonic for another twenty years after that. But here we were playing very successful concerts of great works with a lot of women in the orchestra. It was really groundbreaking.

Abravanel’s Notations

At the time I worked in the library, Abravanel would call and ask me to come over. He’d have a score that he had laid out, and on the inside front page he’d have written all his notations that he wanted put in the parts. I had to interpret what he wrote for every instrument, which consisted of about fifty parts. He had written out all the little nuances and changes he wanted to put into each player’s printed music. One Thanksgiving morning—usually a day off—I got a call from him. We sat down in his studio and he laid out his notes and said, “I want this to go into all the parts,” because there was going to be a recording and he was really concerned. He was very thorough. He was also very upset if, when we played a particular part, every musician didn’t respond to the notation that was in there. He’d stop and say, “Don’t you have something in your part?” They’d say, “Well, yeah.” “So do it.”

Mahler Firsts

When I was at Eastman in 1952, a very interesting thing happened: I looked at the bulletin board one day and saw, “Join the Gustav Mahler Society.” I thought, “Who’s that? What’s that?” And then later that year, the Eastman Junior Symphony played Mahler’s First Symphony. That was my first experience with Mahler. So I was a little bit acquainted with Mahler when Abravanel started programming his music eight years later. There was a resurgence of interest in Mahler at that time. So many of the recordings that had been available were very old and outdated, if they had even been recorded. That was the goal of both Westminster when they started and later Vanguard, to update these, since they would be in stereo, and all of much better sound quality. The Mahler recordings were done in the Tabernacle and the U of U music hall.

Playing in the Tabernacle

A problem we had early on was learning how to record in the Tabernacle. Our first year that we recorded in the Tabernacle, there was so much reverberation they weren’t sure how to deal with it. They required us to lay out our coats on top of the front rows of the Tabernacle seats. Later we got big drapes and put them all over the seats to try to soak up some of the sound. In addition, they put a mike in front of every section so they could catch that sound immediately, and then they could add the reverberation from the hall. It was very interesting how the recording engineers did it. As a side note, once, I was sitting in the audience in the middle of the south balcony, and the most prominent sound was coming from the bassoon section, because from where I was sitting, the bassoon sound followed the ceiling just to my spot.

Awakening to Mahler

Musical America was the prominent music magazine of the time. It covered all of what was happening throughout the music world and America. Abravanel was on the front cover of one issue because of the Mahler recordings, so our recording did have a great impact. I remember I was teaching school, and I subscribed to the magazine for the school library. I was surprised when the issue came with Maurice Abravanel on the front cover. It was a major moment for the orchestra, for the city, for the state, for what we were doing to have this publicity. I think it awakened everyone to Mahler throughout the country, just the mere fact of what we were doing. Other orchestras didn’t want to be left behind, or out of what’s going on, and so I’m sure they picked up on it and started performing more Mahler.

International Success

When the U.S. went on the tour to South America, a very interesting thing happened. Doug Craig, and I, along with the rest of the orchestra had the day off in Corrientes, Argentina, not the evening—as we had a concert that night—so we decided to walk around town a bit. We were looking for the train yard. As we were walking along, a fellow came up to us, out of the blue, put a record jacket in front of us, and said, “Will you autograph this?” We just looked at each other. It was one of our recordings, but it was published by Philips, in Europe. We thought, “This is really something!” You know, to get that far away from home and discover that people are aware of what you’re doing.

An Orchestra without Its Conductor

Abravanel was a very humane person, and everyone loved him. We’d do anything for him. We didn’t question his affection, and we definitely didn’t exhibit any displeasure with the way he worked us in rehearsal, because we knew he would sense it. In fact, if he saw during a rehearsal that someone was uneasy or unhappy or something else, he’d give them a call later and say, “Is there a problem?” Very often he would call to check up and see how your family was. He was very human. I had been in the orchestra twenty-some years, when Abravanel had his heart attack. I got into a very depressed state trying to think of how we were going to function beyond Abravanel. Because the Utah Symphony was our local community orchestra and many of the players were local. That’s not the case now. We worried how we were going to function with another conductor. I know when they hired Thierry Fischer that was an important consideration. We all wanted somebody who was going to be here and invested in this community.

School Concerts

In those early years of school concerts, ballet and even some opera, Abravanel was the conductor. He tried his best to relate to the school audiences. A lot of the students had a difficult time understanding his accent, but he enjoyed the concerts. In fact, he told me personally, “I feel that some of my greatest musical experiences with the symphony were in high school gymnasiums.” We played for a group of people who had never heard anything of Brahms, for example, and yet they were all intently listening.

Getting South High School’s Principal Onboard

While I was teaching at South High, the symphony was scheduled to come and perform a concert. The school had to pay $750 towards the fee. Our auditorium seated 1500, and we decided that if each student paid fifty cents, we could come up with the fee. So we started moving ahead on this. We got the day scheduled and the publicity was out in the school, when the principal all of a sudden said, “You know, there are a lot of our students that may not like this type of an experience, so I’m going to excuse those who do not want to go to the concert to go to the library during that period of time,” which just deflated us. He was not onboard. So we played the concert, and it was great. Abravanel, cagey as ever, got the principal up on stage and congratulated him on the conduct of the students. He also complimented him on the number that attended, and what a great job he and the music faculty were doing. He really laid it on. The next time the orchestra was to perform at South High, we didn’t have any problem. The principal took over, as it was “his baby”, and we no longer had to worry about how much money they raised.

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Mahler Memories: Russell Harlow

Russell Harlow, clarinet, 1971-1985

Aging Ears
We were doing the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony in the tabernacle with Abravanel, and Alexander Schriner, the organist. It was towards the end of Abravanel’s career, and both men were very old, and at one point Schriner was not with the orchestra. Abravanel stopped and he started waving and  saying “Alex! Alex!” and finally he got him to stop. He said, “Alex, you’re behind!” and then Alex said “…What?” and Abravanel said, “…What?” And there it went back and forth a few times until somebody in the middle stood up and translated.

All Composers Are Conducted Equally
I don’t remember there being any difference between recording the Mahler symphonies, or performing the Mahler symphonies, or recording all the Brahms or the Tchaikovsky that we did, or the Sibelius and all of the Grieg orchestra music. I feel that for Abravanel, it was a really important thing—and for the orchestra, by association—it was a very big thing to do all the Mahlers. But he did not do anything less with the other composers than he did with Mahler. So I don’t remember a great deal of difference between when we did Mahler and when we did Brahms. It was always very, very focused. And the integrity of the man and the orchestra at that point was fantastic.

Strength in Numbers
He had a strength of character that you don’t see in a lot of people. When I joined the symphony, there were five people in the office. Five staff members. There was Abravanel and just five. A few years earlier in the 60s, I believe there were even fewer. And he was always there when they had all of these accountants in to decide the finances and they had their machines and systems, and he would do it in his head. He was a brilliant man! He would do all the figures in his head, and most of the time he would have the figures ahead of all of these others as well. “It’s going to be this, it’s going to be this, it’s going to be this.”

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TRIO series: the Composer

I find myself organizing celebrations around music rather than the other way around. —Nico Muhly

Nico Mulhy began his musical career as a child growing up in Providence, Rhode Island. A self-proclaimed “alright pupil,” he played piano and sang in a boys choir in a church. It was around the age of eleven that everything clicked. “I loved music, and wanted to not just play and sing, but also write,” says Nico. Since that defining moment in his youth, Nico has dedicated his life’s work to creating music. His are sounds that are heard around the world, that have inspired others to continue listening, to become an active participant in the music. He celebrates life through music.

Nico Muhler

Photo credit: Steven Psano

The Julliard-trained composer spends so much of his life writing music, that he admits to throwing parties based around the completion of a composition. He has written music for friends’ weddings on several occasions.

“It feels negligent of me to allow anybody I know to walk down the aisle to Pachelbel, because we are all adults,” says Nico. For this reason, he makes it a point to write music that suits the occasion, and allows him as a composer to engage with his community more responsibly. He recalls two weddings in particular:

“Last summer, two friends got married on a small island in Iceland, and I wrote music for the assembled company. [There were] two keyboards, viola da gamba, [and] voices.  We crammed ourselves into a tiny corner of the chapel and rehearsed in a sweaty half an hour, and miniature ponies looked quizzically at us. Later that same summer, I wrote music for a wedding where the bride’s childhood friends and neighbors were to be included in the composition: one plays Celtic harp, and the other, a sort of bedazzled steampunk cornet.”

Nico vehemently believes in the power of music. “I think music has the ability to transform space, which is its amazing invisible power,” he says.  For him, the moments just before a rehearsal of a large orchestra are the most moving. These are the moments when each player is focused on what’s in front of them, or what’s in their head, or perhaps their own work. That moment exemplifies life experienced through music.

By Autumn Thatcher

You can also learn more about Nico Muhly’s World Premiere composition, commissioned by the Utah Symphony.

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TRIO series: the Timpanist

It was during a dress rehearsal of Brahms Violin Concerto—something came over me in the middle of the third movement that consumed my entire being. It said yes, this is exactly what I want to do. —George Brown

Utah Symphony timpanist George Brown grew up experimenting with different instruments. The son of a professional woodwind player, George knew as a little boy that he wanted to play the drums, but it was not until ninth grade—after taking a break from music to practice his jump shot—that he began playing them. Once he started, he never looked back.

George Brown

It was while pursuing an education at University of Louisville that George decided to audition for the United States Armed Forces Bi-Centennial Band.

“The story of the Bicentennial Band was a story of a particular celebration that ended up having an impact on my life then and afterwards,” says George, who swore into the United States Coast Guard upon landing a spot in the band.

He recalls a time in US history where the nation was not celebrating much of anything. Tremendous political upheaval, riots, high gas prices, the Watergate scandal, and the beginning of terrorism between the 1960s and 1970s consumed the country. From 1975–1976, the Bicentennial Band provided a way for people to come together and celebrate the historical events that led to the creation of the United States. George’s participation in the band meant twenty months of constant touring—and self-exploration.

“I saw the beginning of a healing process in which Americans finally had something to feel good about ourselves as Americans. The entire country participated in this. That provided an opportunity for me to participate in a celebration that was some of the best memories of my early career,” George says.

The tour also gave George the chance to travel—and ultimately come to Utah for the first time. He immediately fell in love with the mountainous landscape, and vowed to return. A series of remarkable musical experiences have given George many reasons to bask in life’s moments. From the East to the West to Mexico City and around the world, George carries with him beautiful memories of celebrating life through music.

By Autumn Thatcher

Stay tuned for our last TRIO series’ article on the well-known composer, Nico Muhly.

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