When the Grammy nominations for best orchestral performance were announced last month, several of the usual suspects made the cut. There was the august Berlin Philharmonic, for an album conducted by the composer John Williams, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of its maestro, Gustavo Dudamel.
But a newcomer also got a nod: the debut album of the New York Youth Symphony, a prestigious musical program for musicians between the ages of 12 and 22.
The news that the ensemble’s album had earned a Grammy nomination astonished some of its young players.
“I jumped in the air and I screamed, like I have never screamed before,” said Isabella Marquez, 18, who played violin on the album and watched a livestream of the Grammy nominations announcement in the kitchen of her Manhattan apartment with her mother and grandmother.
“I never thought that I would be on an album, much less a Grammy-nominated album,” said Marquez.
Clockwise from top left: Kennedy Plains, 22, a bassoonist, Joshua Choi, 18, a clarinetist and Iris Sung, 17, a violinist, who all played on the album, and Dmytro Tishyn, a 16-year-old bassoonist from Ukraine who played with the ensemble last month at a concert at Carnegie Hall.
The recording might never have happened had it not been for the pandemic. When live performance was halted in 2020, and a Carnegie Hall concert was canceled, the ensemble decided to try to make an album instead.
After the police murder of George Floyd and the social justice protests that spread throughout the nation that summer, the orchestra decided to rehearse and record works by Black composers, and selected pieces by Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery and Valerie Coleman. “We need to promote music that deals with these issues,” the orchestra’s music director, Michael Repper, said in an interview.
The album, which is untitled, came together after six weeks of remote instruction followed by in person socially distant rehearsals and four days of recording sessions in which the musicians recorded the sections of the orchestra separately — all without a single Covid-19 infection, Repper noted. It was produced by Judith Sherman, a 13-time Grammy winner, who is nominated as classical producer of the year.
Many of the young players were proud to have simply recorded an album during the pandemic. They were stunned when it was recognized by the Grammys, amid such illustrious competition — orchestras many of them have long revered.
Joshua Choi, an 18-year-old principal clarinetist in the youth program, said he listened to the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist, Andreas Ottensamer, whenever he needed motivation.
After learning of the Grammy nomination, he couldn’t find the words to tell his parents, and stared in shock at his roommate, who plays oboe in the youth symphony, Choi said.
“That’s pretty mind blowing,” Choi said. “I still can’t process that.”
Iris Sung, the orchestra’s 17-year-old concertmaster, said she was in class at Tenafly High School in New Jersey when the nomination was announced. After her mother broke the news on her way home from school, she shared the nomination on Instagram, and as her phone flooded with congratulatory messages she thought back to recording it “in such a strange time.”
“Just knowing that all that had paid off, I think was just something so special to me,” Sung said.
The album features music by Price, including “Ethiopia’s Shadow in America” and her Piano Concerto in One Movement, featuring the pianist Michelle Cann; “Umoja: Anthem of Unity” by Coleman; and “Soul Force,” by Montgomery.
Montgomery, 40, a composer whose works have been performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra, and who is now the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer in residence, played violin with the New York Youth Symphony as a teenager.
“It was the first time I had ever played youth symphonies, really, and it was a really important moment in my education,” Montgomery said. “That was my gateway into orchestral music.”
For this recording, she held a video call with the young players, where she answered their questions on articulation and dynamics.
When she was young, Montgomery said, orchestras rarely played music by Black composers. She said it was comforting to see that change.
“Young people in the world right now are coming up in music at a time where Black art is centralized, and I think that is a very positive thing from the perspective of a young person,” Montgomery said.
Kennedy Plains, a 22-year-old bassoonist and former member of the Youth Symphony, said that she was glad that ensembles were playing music by a more diverse roster of composers, and that she had appreciated the chance to work with Montgomery on a video call.
“I hadn’t really got to play works by a lot of composers of color before,” Plains said, who learned to play the bassoon in middle school.
Jessica Jeon, 14, a violinist, said that after learning of Price through the youth program, she gave a presentation about her to her seventh grade civil and human rights class.
Price, who became the first Black woman to have her music played by a major American orchestra in 1933 when the Chicago Symphony performed her Symphony in E Minor, has been enjoying a renaissance in recent years, along with other composers of color.
“They didn’t have the chance to become super well known such as Mozart or Beethoven because of their race or their gender or their sexuality,” said Jeon, who was 12 when the album was recorded. “Because of that, I felt inspired to try to introduce more people to them.”
When the youth symphony returned to Carnegie Hall last month, it played with Dmytro Tishyn, a 16-year-old bassoonist from Ukraine who had fled after the Russian invasion.
Repper, who will pass his music director role to Andrew Jinhong Kim in the 2023-2024 season, said that he hopes the album inspires more orchestras to play and record music by Black composers.
“Orchestras don’t deserve any extra credit at this point for performing works by Black composers,” he said. “They don’t deserve any extra credit for performing works by women. It’s something that should have been done for decades.”
The Grammy Awards will be presented on Feb. 5 in Los Angeles.