With the holiday season in full swing, performing arts traditions abound in the city. This Christmas, the New York String Orchestra Seminar turns 50, celebrating half a century of mentoring talented young artists and giving them a boost onto the world stage.
Where else can you find an alumni list that includes so many of the most recognizable names in classical music? Among them are Yo Yo Ma, Gil Shaham, Anne Akiko Meyers, and David Finckel, and there is a good reason for that.
“There’s a kind of feeling making music with young people that’s almost impossible to achieve with professionals, because they play as if their life depends on it,” says conductor Jaime Laredo, the seminar’s artistic director.
“Just think—most of these young adults, they will probably, 80 to 90 percent of them, never have played Tchaikovsky’s Concerto. So you can imagine what an experience this is for them, being the first time,” he said. “They play as if their lives depend on it.”
The seminar is offered to musicians living in the United States, ages 16–23, and lasts 10 days in New York from Dec. 19 to the Dec. 28 Carnegie Hall concert. Room and board are completely covered, and there is no charge for the seminar except for an application fee and travel. Musicians practice all day at the The New School’s Mannes School of Music: orchestra rehearsals in the day, chamber music sessions in the evening, and coaching by section in between. This year, over 400 students applied, and 64 were accepted. And the students aren’t just playing with their most talented peers from across the nation. They will be playing onstage with acclaimed musicians, nearly all of them alumni.
“First rehearsal is the morning of the 19th, so it’s not that long before Dec. 24th,” Laredo said. After five days of rehearsals, the orchestra performs the first of two concerts on Christmas Eve. “Some years, it’s a little scary, and I say on the first day, ‘Are we going to make it?’ But we always do. They’re amazing. There’s never any stragglers, ever.”
What the seminar does is give musicians a taste of what it might be like to be a professional.
The seminar was started in 1969 by artist manager Frank Salomon for his good friend, the conductor and violinist Alexander Schneider, known as Sasha to his friends. It was one of Schneider’s greatest wishes to nurture the next generation of musicians, and as leader of the seminar, he had a hand in the career of hundreds of professional musicians.
In 1993, the baton was passed to Laredo.
Laredo and Schneider had worked together and closely for many years, but when, after dinner one night, Schneider asked him to take on the role, Laredo wasn’t initially excited.
“He said, look, this seminar that I’ve been doing is the most important thing in my life, and I want to make sure it continues. And you’re the person I’d love to see take over,” Laredo remembered. It was a difficult decision, because Christmastime was the only time he wasn’t traveling and working, he thought. “But I couldn’t say no to Sasha.”
A year later, Schneider passed away.
“It’s 26 years now. I believe now I’ll have done it one year longer than Sasha. It’s hard to believe. It’s just flown by,” Laredo said.
“Every year, I just get more and more amazed because the standards just seem to go higher and higher,” Laredo says.
The repertoire has expanded as well: Schneider focused mainly on classical-era works, and Laredo has broadened it over the years to late Romantic and beyond. And while the orchestra did start as an all-string ensemble, winds and percussion were gradually added early on.
Laredo’s personality is markedly different from Schneider’s, and the way he articulates his ideas is likely different, but ultimately he has the same goal.
“I hope that they leave with a love of music, and thinking, ‘This is really what I want to do; this is what I want to pursue,'” Laredo said. “If even a few of them feel that way, then I feel like I’ve done my job.”
On Dec. 24, the orchestra will be performing Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides” Overture; Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B Minor with soloists and alumni Jinjoo Cho, Pamela Frank, Bella Hristova, and Kyoko Takezawa; and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with pianist Yefim Bronfman.
The Dec. 28 concert will include George Walker’s “Lyric,” guest conducted by alum Karina Canellakis; Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D Major with soloist Joshua Bell; and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6.
In addition to the soloists, the seminar is also inviting about two dozen alumni who will perform in the orchestra side by side with the students, including concertmasters and principal players from major orchestras across the country.
“Alexander Schneider and Jaime Laredo … first of all, I am doing what I love because of those two,” said double bassist Kurt Muroki. “I owe my entire career to the seminar.”
Muroki, from Hawaii, said his teacher Homer R. Mensch advised him to apply to the seminar, which he happily did because the home was too far away to travel for the holidays.
“I was a naive student who knew nothing about what becoming a musician actually entailed,” he said. He attended the seminar as a student in 1992, the last year Schneider headed the post, and again in 1993, Laredo’s first year as music director. Muroki remembers Schneider’s energy and vitality, grabbing students to say “more bow!” and Laredo’s discernment of intonation, the quality of tone, and musical detail. He was coached on Schubert’s “Trout Quintet” by Claude Frank and Felix Galimir and performed with musicians he still plays with to this day.
“It was a pivotal moment in my life,” Muroki said. And that’s why he returns to the seminar to pass on as much as he can, and mentor as well. “We need to keep it alive and inspiring for young musicians as long as we can.”
Anthony McGill, the principal clarinetist at the New York Philharmonic, is another alum who will be back to play with the orchestra this year.
“It was actually one of the most intense experiences of my life, at that time, musically and professionally,” McGill said.
It was over two decades ago and the prestigious seminar was already very well-known, and it was especially competitive for McGill because there were fewer spots for winds than strings. To be able to play with the best players from the best schools, in a concert at Carnegie Hall, “It was like a dream come true,” he said.
The 10 days proved to be intense with the tremendous amount of work the student put in, but it was just as rewarding in what McGill saw he could accomplish, the mentoring he received, and the relationships forged along the way. It gave McGill confidence that he could handle this professionally.
For McGill, it feels like 20 years ago was just yesterday. But in a way he’s never really left because since then he has kept in touch with the people from the seminar, donating either money or time to coach or conduct the wind section whenever he is able to.
“This is a really special thing, so I want to make the time to do that,” he said. “It’s important to not forget where you learned all these things, to give back and share your stories.”