On December 24 and 28 the New York String Orchestra will present its annual winter concerts at Carnegie Hall. Playbill talks with conductor and violinist Jamie Laredo about this year's concerts and the concurrent New York String Orchestra Seminar.
Playbill: The December concerts at Carnegie Hall by the New York String Orchestra have become a beloved tradition in New York City. How did it begin?
Jamie Laredo: This all started because of the violinist Alexander Schneider of the famed Budapest String Quartet. He used to have a traditional Christmas Eve concert, which began at midnight. In those days it was with a professional pickup orchestra, and every year he did something different. One year it would be all Bach, another year he would do all the Handel Concerti Grossi. It became a Christmas Eve tradition. Then, classical music manager Frank Salomon got the idea of creating what is now known as the New York String Orchestra Seminar around the Christmas Eve concert. The seminar is an incredibly concentrated ten-day program for young musicians between the ages of 15 and 22. The orchestra rehearses for six hours a day‹three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. In the evening all the string players are coached in string quartets, and the wind players are coached in pieces like the Mozart serenades.
Playbill: So the New York String Orchestra and the seminar are not just for string players?
Laredo: No. When Schneider started it all, it was strictly for strings. But after a few years he added a couple of oboes and horns, and they expanded the repertoire. But now it's a full symphony orchestra, and we've been doing all kinds of repertoire. The name just never changed.
Playbill: This year the concert on December 28 is all Mendelssohn, and during the Christmas Eve concert, in addition to works by Schubert and Grieg, you're doing the Mendelssohn First Piano Concerto. Why so much Mendelssohn this year?
Laredo: In past years we've done a lot of Mozart and Bach, as well as contemporary music‹for instance, we've done works by John Corigliano and George Walker and others‹because I think it's very important for kids to play music of today. But Mendelssohn is a composer that I have loved, sometimes above all others. He is truly one of the greatest composers that I know. Frankly, I think that in his early years Mendelssohn was more of a genius than Mozart at the same age. Mozart was astounding at some of the things he wrote when he was a teenager. But when you think of Mendelssohn writing the Octet when he was 16 years old, and then the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture‹it's incredible. I saw a wonderful performance of the complete Midsummer Night's Dream in Aspen with Claire Bloom, who had made her own libretto. It's a shortened version of the Shakespeare play. It's really quite astonishing, and I thought the kids would just love doing it. So when everyone agreed, I thought, why not make it an all-Mendelssohn program?
Playbill: Throughout the years, these concerts‹and the seminar‹have been the launching pad for an astonishing number of musicians.
Laredo: It's really remarkable! When I tour, either conducting or playing concertos, every major orchestra I play with‹you would not believe how many musicians will come up to me and say, "I was in the seminar years ago." In the San Francisco Symphony there are 17 members, 14 in the New York Philharmonic. St. Louis has about a dozen and there's a ton in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Plus soloists like Yo-Yo Ma…
Playbill: ...and Gil Shaham, Pamela Frank, Shlomo Mintz, and Cho-Liang Lin…
Laredo: ...and chamber music players, too. Three members of the Emerson String Quartet, three members of the Orion String Quartet, plus members of the Guarneri. It just goes on and on.
Playbill: All of whom probably played at Carnegie Hall for the first time during one of these holiday concerts.
Laredo: One of my favorite times of the whole 10-day period is our first rehearsal at Carnegie Hall. I always make sure I get there early, before the kids arrive. If you could see the looks on their faces as they walk onstage and look out into the hall. They're thinking to themselves, "Oh, my gosh. I can't believe I'm here." It's very touching to see. Playing with younger musicians is something that's very exhilarating. There's such a love of music, there's an enthusiasm there that, no matter how hard you try, you just can't get from a professional orchestra, even the greatest orchestra in the world. I've been conducting the concerts now for ten years, and when we do a piece like Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, I'd say probably 90 percent of them are playing it for the first time. So you can imagine the thrill they get, and it comes out in their performance. I think the audience, too, is very fortunate to be a part of this, to watch these extraordinary youngsters onstage at Carnegie Hall. It's an experience that is very, very special.
Paul Thomason is a frequent contributor to Playbill.