It has been a decade since Carnegie Hall, the Weill Music Institute, and The Juilliard School—in partnership with the New York City Department of Education—established a two-year fellowship program for outstanding young professional instrumentalists. And alongside milestones celebrated in the tenth-anniversary year was one notable change: a new name for the ensemble those fellows form. “The anniversary seemed like a good chance to change the name to something that really encapsulates what we’re about,” says Amy Rhodes, the program’s director.
The group’s name, Ensemble Connect, certainly does that. You need only look at their schedule of activities—or better still, some of the 101 alumni—to see why. One of those, violist Nathan Schram, has established Musicambia, a nonprofit organization that takes music into incarcerated communities. Another, violist Meena Bhasin, has co-founded the chamber music group Decoda with other Ensemble Connect alumni, which can be seen and heard in creative musical experiences around the world in spaces not used to live acoustic musicians.
Schram and Bhasin are not alone among former Ensemble Connect members in pioneering activities that engage directly with the communities in which they exist. Perhaps that’s unsurprising, given the program’s determination to do the same. Communication is as much of a priority for Ensemble Connect when on the stage of Weill Recital Hall as when in the classroom of a New York City public school. That is what the program breeds in its fellows, who are handpicked following a rigorous interview and audition process.
Once enrolled, fellows work an average of 20 hours a week from September to June, giving concerts and sharing music with New Yorkers wherever they may be. Fellows also benefit from a professional development program to ensure that once they leave, they become leaders in their field.
The latter is an increasingly important strand in the program’s activities. “In these first ten years of Ensemble Connect, we have sought to continually expand the ways in which we support these exceptional musicians, both during the program and beyond,” says Carnegie Hall’s executive and artistic director Clive Gillinson. “We work closely with them as fellows to explore how to engage meaningfully with people across many areas of society, also guiding them in thinking about how new experiences gained through the program can shape their careers ahead. The result is an ever larger pool of remarkable citizen musicians dedicated to transforming people’s lives through music, both in the U.S. and around the world.”
As for engagement with audiences, the experiences come thick and fast and have immediate repercussions. “Taking music into prisons, hospitals, homeless shelters, and elder-care facilities really transforms the fellows as performers, and you can see it,” says Rhodes. “We push them into doing things they have never done before and perhaps never thought they would do. As a result, they see how music can impact people from all walks of life. In that sense, they often leave us thinking they can do anything!”
It helps that the program picks the right musicians in the first place—people who are “not just excited about performing onstage at Carnegie Hall,” in Rhodes’ words. The process of getting out and performing in unexpected or unusual settings—often having to rearrange music for whatever instruments are available—can have huge effects on the versatility and musicianship of the participants themselves. “When they break down music to a more basic human level for the benefit of people who haven’t been in a practice room studying music for hours on end, it can inform their own music making. It changes the way they think about a piece of music and then perform it,” says Rhodes.
Ensemble Connect’s current membership includes string, wind, brass, keyboard, and percussion players from Canada, Germany, Australia, South Korea, and Uzbekistan—all graduates of the finest music schools from across the United States and experts on their respective instruments. But as the program continues its bi-yearly cycle of recruitment, Rhodes has started to see their work come full circle. “I don’t think Nathan [Schram] thought that the prison work would impact him so greatly when he joined, that it would become the direction he moved his career into,” she says. “Applicants seem to come with a real curiosity about what could be incorporated into their careers. They think about much more than performing at Carnegie Hall, and seeing that shift has been really inspiring.”
Evolution has been at the heart of the ensemble’s development. The two-year duration of the fellowship allows the program’s values to sink deeper into its participants. “One of the best parts of the job is watching that process of change over two years,” says Deanna Kennett, the ensemble’s senior manager of education. “They’re totally different people when they come out; I think they discover parts of themselves that they didn’t know were there.”
And that process of evolution continues. “Everything that has been added to the program has been prompted by things we’ve observed, things we’ve wanted our fellows to experience, or feedback from fellows themselves—most recently the entrepreneurship element, which has seen such interesting results,” says Rhodes. “That will be true of the future too, so it’s hard to foresee what new directions we’ll take. We’ve thought about introducing a composing element and looking at more advocacy for arts and culture at a national level, particularly in light of current times.”
In the meantime, there is a chance to pause and recognize what the program has achieved in purely musical terms, not least in assembling an ensemble of 18 or more players that may change biannually but which still, according to a recent New York Times review, sounds “captivating.”
While we enjoy the music, we can also reflect on the resonance and potential of the program itself. “My time in Ensemble Connect introduced me to possibilities in the arts that I didn’t even know existed,” testified one former fellow, trombonist Stephen Dunn. Many more who encountered his musicianship probably feel the same.
Andrew Mellor's original article appeared in Beyond the Stage: Stories from Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, published by Faircount Media Group.