Carnegie Hall to Welcome Youth Orchestras From 5 Continents During World Orchestra Week | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Carnegie Hall to Welcome Youth Orchestras From 5 Continents During World Orchestra Week

The event is a historic showcase of young talent and the capacity of music to build bridges.

The National Children's Symphony of Venezuela Nohely Oliveros

Playing music hasn’t just enhanced Zohra Ahmadi’s life, it literally saved her. As she recalls, “After the return of the Taliban to power [in 2021], I thought, ‘What if I never get the chance to play music again?’”

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music, where Ahmadi had been studying trumpet and sitar since age 10, was shut down and the staff feared for everyone’s safety. Within months, more than 250 students and teachers along with their families fled Afghanistan for Portugal, where they started to rebuild the institution and their lives.

During that terrifying transition, music is what kept Ahmadi and her fellow refugees going. “When I listened to music, it always gave me hope,” she says. “It helped me to not give up on my dreams.”

This summer, one of her dreams is coming true: The 15-year-old will make her Carnegie Hall debut on August 7 as a member of the Afghan Youth Orchestra. The concert is part of the historic World Orchestra Week (WOW!), a seven-day celebration of youth ensembles that hail from five continents.

Besides the Afghan Youth Orchestra, the festival features performances by the National Children’s Symphony of Venezuela on August 2, the Africa United Youth Orchestra on August 3, the Beijing Youth Orchestra on August 4, and the European Union Youth Orchestra on August 6. Carnegie Hall’s own National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA) and its sister group, NYO2, also play on August 5 and August 1, respectively. Joining NYO-USA at the Hall are musicians from Polyphony, the Nazareth-based educational program that brings together Arab and Jewish musicians in performance.

Each ensemble will perform a mix of canonical works by the likes of Dvořák, Mahler, Shostakovich, Bernstein, and Gershwin alongside music from their home countries, such as traditional Afghan music on Afghan instruments, Venezuelan composer Antonio Estévez’s Mediodía en el llano, Chinese composer Zhao Jiping’s Concerto No. 2 for Pipa (a traditional instrument dubbed the Chinese lute), and Fatše La Heso (My Country) by South African composer Michael Mosoeu Moerane.

WOW! is the vision of Clive Gillinson, the Hall’s executive and artistic director, who inspired the creation of NYO-USA and its offshoots. He knows firsthand how playing in a youth orchestra can change kids’ lives. “At the age of 16, I auditioned for and was offered a place in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain,” he recalls. “My only experience had been with our school orchestra, which was very poor, as few students were interested in music. Suddenly, I was surrounded by brilliant, excited, hugely talented peers, where every moment was pervaded by an overwhelming sense of optimism and idealism. Joining that ensemble transformed my view of my future—I could no longer imagine my life without music at the center of it.”

The WOW! festival has taken years to coordinate, with more than 700 up-and-coming instrumentalists descending on Carnegie Hall to perform and bond. In addition to the concerts, they will participate in communal music-making experiences throughout the week—including a massive play-in event—and engage in cultural-exchange activities.

Gillinson says the Hall’s own youth orchestras—particularly their trips abroad when they play alongside adolescent musicians from other nations—sparked the idea for WOW! “Building on our experiences with our ensembles, we were inspired to pay tribute to the many incredible youth orchestras from around the world,” he says. “Our wish is to bring brilliant young musicians together and provide the opportunity for them to meet and learn from one another, setting the stage for new friendships and connections through music. Whether the players participating in this festival choose to become professional musicians or not, we know they will become key leaders in their own countries. It is exciting to think about the impact of building an international community of young people united through music.”

WOW!’s participants are equally passionate about the power of music to enrich, elevate, connect, and even heal. While other stories may not be as harrowing as Ahmadi escaping the Taliban, many agree that music has helped them get through tough times.

“When I was 9 years old, I broke my arm in an accident. It was impossible for me to play, and I became very depressed,” recalls Marianne Valera, a 15-year-old violist with the National Children’s Symphony of Venezuela. She was urged to give up her musical aspirations, but she refused. “I did the exercises the physiotherapists gave me so as not to abandon my dream,” she says. “It was challenging, but I did not give up. Music has always been a refuge for me.”

For Bénédicte Leclerc, a violist with the European Union Youth Orchestra, music helped her meet new friends when her family immigrated to France. “I remember that being able to play my viola in the primary school orchestra helped me to be accepted, even though I came from abroad and I was different from others due to the color of my skin,” she explains.

And many talk about how music and mood are inextricably intertwined. “Music has an amazing ability to evoke the same emotions that relate to positive or negative situations in your life,” says Daniël Spies, a flautist with the Africa United Youth Orchestra. “When I am feeling down, it always helps to listen and play music. It gives me something more important to focus on.”

Of course, music isn’t the only activity on the agenda for these budding instrumentalists during WOW! They’re also excited to explore everything New York City has to offer. Spies is “looking forward to drinking an authentic Starbucks iced coffee,” while his colleague, Pendo Masote, a violinist and self-described foodie, is eager to try “a corner bodega chopped cheese sandwich and $1 slice of pizza, even though I’ve heard it doesn’t cost a dollar anymore.” More traditional tourist destinations—such as the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Central Park, Times Square, Museum of Modern Art, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art—are also on the list, and multiple participants plan to tour their dream school, Juilliard.

Above all, just as they expect to learn from each other during WOW!, they want Carnegie Hall audiences to learn from them, too. “I hope that the international audience will appreciate that there are talented musicians in Africa, with our own musical interpretations and expressions,” says Spies. “I hope they enjoy hearing well-known pieces with our style.”

Valera hopes the “Venezuelan spark” will rub off on concertgoers. “Normally, in recordings of concerts from other countries they only applaud, while in Venezuela, they stand up, whistle, and shout and dance,” she says.

For Farida Ahmadi, a 15-year-old violinist who plays alongside her cousin Zohra in the Afghan Youth Orchestra, she wants listeners to not only appreciate the music, but also how hard it was for her and her cohorts to get to Carnegie Hall at all. “The beauty of our repertoire will contribute to the positive response, but also the fact that we come from a nation where music is banned,” she says. “We are fighting for the musical rights of the Afghan people. I hope the audience supports us in our journey.”

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