The New York String Orchestra: it's a name that hardly does justice to this ensemble, which is neither a string group nor limited to musicians from New York. It is, in fact, an orchestral experience reborn every December under the auspices of Carnegie Hall and the New School, made up of young players from all over the country, immensely skilled, devoted to music, and all between the ages of 15 and 22!
Over the last three and a half decades the orchestra has been an inspiration and a proving ground for some 1,600 instrumentalists. Many of them have gone on to positions in major orchestras: the current count includes eight concertmasters and more than 50 principals (and The Philadelphia Orchestra tops the membership list, with 19 alumni on its roster). "Graduates" include cellists Yo-Yo Ma and David Finckel, violinists Gil Shaham, Cho-Liang Lin, and Pamela Frank, and numerous members of well-known string quartets. Clearly, there is important work afoot here; this is no mere winter holiday for the participants.
The group is a select one, made up almost entirely of conservatory students who have passed stringent in-person auditions (aspirants submit taped applications, and the most promising are given live auditions held in a half dozen cities). They arrive in New York on full $3,500 scholarships, are lodged at a nearby hotel, and plunge into ten days of grueling work. They play for the huge satisfaction of appearing at Carnegie Hall, and not least for the sympathetic, disciplined guidance of conductor Jaime Laredo, who has been at the helm of the ensemble since 1993.
"I don't think anywhere else can young players have this kind of concentrated, complete immersion in the music," Laredo says. "These kids are working day and night‹three hours in the morning, three hours in the afternoon, and chamber music in the evening. An eight- or nine-hour day. For myself, after six hours of screaming and yelling, I'm just wiped out." A number of Laredo's colleagues, many of them distinguished NYSO veterans, do the nighttime coaching and often join in the orchestra concerts.
The "screaming and yelling" must be taken with a grain of salt. "He's so nice," says a Chinese-born player, bubbling over with enthusiasm. "If we make a mistake, we feel so bad, and he says something like, 'Oh, is that my fault?' It makes you feel more comfortable. And I just couldn't believe a musician like him would actually work with us every single rehearsal."
Laredo inherited the podium from a close friend, the late Budapest String Quartet violinist Alexander Schneider (known universally as "Sascha"), for whom the program was created in 1968, the year after the Budapest disbanded. Credit for its establishment goes to longtime artist manager Frank Salomon, co-administrator of the Marlboro Festival, with which Schneider was associated for many years.
Laredo assisted Schneider until the latter's death in 1993, and refers to him as "one of my great mentors‹I looked up to him just about as much as any other musician I can think of." Laredo's way of working with his young players, however, is very much his own: "Sascha and I were very different people. We approached things differently. I think I'm more objective with the kids. Sascha absolutely terrified them. I don't believe in that. I feel that one can get much better results by encouraging, in a loving way, really. I'm still very strict, of course‹you have to be. But I think I tend to encourage, rather than discourage." The vote on that would seem to be just about unanimous.
It says a great deal about the commitment of Laredo's young players that they are happy for the most part to cap six hours of daytime rehearsal with two or three hours of chamber music in the evenings‹work that will not, so to speak, see the light of day. There is no time for public chamber performances in the nonstop schedule, and even at the vigorous age of 15 or 20, fatigue does eventually set in. "This is not the kind of thing you want to do if you want to get some rest from the school year," one violinist says. "I was dead tired." And she sounds positively happy about that.
The soloists for New York String Orchestra concerts are often former orchestra members‹"and since some of our alumni have been pretty amazing, there's a lot to choose from," Laredo says. "I think it's a wonderful thing for the kids to see somebody who's really famous‹to know that those people up there were once like them. It's something to look up to." Among featured soloists who were "once like them" are violinists Cho-Liang Lin, Gil Shaham, and Cleveland concertmaster William Preucil. Balancing the instrumental ledger are pianists on the order of Peter Serkin, Lang Lang, Richard Goode, and Katherine Jacobson, as well as Leon Fleisher, who appeared in 2003 and is back again this year. As Laredo says, "a pretty distinguished bunch of people." And needless to say, a pretty distinguished musical experience for all concerned.
Shirley Fleming is a music critic for the New York Post and New York correspondent for MusicalAmerica.com.