After the New York Youth Symphony submitted its debut album in the Best Orchestral Performance category for the 2022 Grammy Awards, neither the young musicians nor their music director, Michael Repper, thought they’d edge out competition like the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. Yet in February, the fresh-faced ensemble became the first youth orchestra to be awarded a Grammy, winning with a recording of music by Black women.
The album, which reached #1 on Billboard’s “Traditional Classical Albums” chart, features the first recording by an American orchestra of Florence Price’s Ethiopia’s Shadow in America (1932). It also includes Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement (1934) with soloist Michelle Cann. The NYYS had been scheduled to perform the work with Cann at Carnegie Hall in the spring of 2020, but after the pandemic shuttered concert halls Repper decided instead to record it with Cann.
Also on the disc are Jessie Montgomery’s Soul Force (2015) and Valerie Coleman’s Umoja: Anthem of Unity for Orchestra (2019), both of which Repper says seemed meaningful to record during the physical separation of the pandemic and the social justice protests following the murder of George Floyd. It was an important moment, he says, “to record works that addressed systemic racism from the point of view of Black women.”
Montgomery’s piece, whose title is inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, “attempts to portray the notion of a voice that struggles to be heard beyond the shackles of oppression,” according to Montgomery’s program notes. An album of works by Black American women sends “a strong message that meaningful art happens to us all and that if you’re not listening to Black music, you’re probably missing out on something very special,” says Montgomery, a composer, violinist, and, in an interesting turn, herself an alumna of the New York Youth Symphony. “This album says: we see you, we hear you, and let’s start to re-write this history.”
Montgomery adds that she is honored to have her work “performed with such stunning nuance and commitment. I’m happy to share this win with a group that is doing such tremendous work in music education. It is part of my mission to empower young people and this win accomplishes just that.”
Repper, 32, who became the youth orchestra’s music director in the 2017-18 season and conducts his last performance as music director on May 28 at Carnegie Hall, agrees, saying that “one of the most important things that all professional musicians can do is to look out for the next generation.” He notes that his career took off because he had mentors such as conductor Marin Alsop, another an alumna of NYYS, “who believed in me and created opportunities for me when I was a kid.”
Representation in Classical Music
Cellist Noelia Carrasco, a New York University sophomore of Asian and Latinx heritage, says she didn’t expect anything beyond recognition for entering the Grammys, “and anything more than that would have been overwhelming, which it was in the end!” She describes the Grammy Award as an “empowering” event that offered the young musicians a sense of pride and ownership, as well as being a win for greater representation in the classical music world. It was exciting, she says, that a youth ensemble was able to bring this repertory to a wider audience. “A lot more youth orchestras will take the initiative and give composers from underrepresented backgrounds and new composers a chance,” she adds.
“The NYYS has opened so many doors and given me a lot of opportunities. I’ve been able to not only work with classical music but with different genres, which has definitely enriched my musical education,” she says. “I really cherish all of the time that I’ve spent with the symphony.”
Before the pandemic, the NYYS met every Sunday to rehearse. In 2020, of course, rehearsing and recording became complicated. In order to adhere to social distancing protocols, the orchestra split into string and wind sections to record the album separately in the DiMenna Center’s cavernous performance space. Multiple recordings were then layered during the edit by veteran producer Judith Sherman, who won a 2022 Grammy as Classical Producer of the Year.
While the recording circumstances were unusually stressful, the young musicians of the NYYS are certainly accustomed to learning contemporary music alongside Brahms and Mahler symphonies. In addition to the classics, the NYYS, founded in 1963, provides its members (who range in age from 12 to 22) a strong training in contemporary music and has a robust commissioning program, presenting a new piece at each of its annual Carnegie Hall concerts.
Joshua Choi, a freshman clarinet major at Juilliard in his fifth year with the NYYS, describes learning new music as intense and anxiety-provoking when the composer is at rehearsals and concerts. But, he adds, it’s “definitely a really cool experience,” pointing out that it’s exciting to get feedback directly from the composer.
Choi says that before the NYYS’s Grammy win, audiences might have thought of youth orchestras as casual community groups. But “our win really kind of shocked people,” he says. “I think people will start taking youth orchestras more seriously now, because we proved that teenagers and young adults are capable of doing great things.”
For Montgomery, playing in NYYS was her first experience in a full-sized orchestra, “so it had a strong impact on my perception of music and performance at the time,” she says. “Youth ensembles are as important today as they have always been. Young people need places where they can be challenged in a positive way toward making something beautiful and meaningful. It helps you to see good in the world.”