When the New York Youth Symphony recorded its debut album during the pandemic’s dark early days, violinist Jessica Jeon was just 12 years old.
Now she and her fellow musicians are competing against some of the world’s elite orchestras, including the famed Los Angeles and Berlin Philharmonics, to take home the Grammy award for best orchestral performance—the first time a youth orchestra has ever made it into the category.
“What a cool experience to have—this is my first time ever, like, recording in a studio,” Jeon, now 14, told AFP after a rehearsal.
Confronted with the pandemic-forced cancellations of the symphony’s customary performances at Carnegie Hall, music director Michael Repper decided to organize a recording experience for his students instead—something to mark their accomplishments despite the halt in live performance.
It was no easy feat: pandemic restrictions meant recording could only happen in smaller groups, meaning the young artists had to wear headphones and use a click track for cues, and the different parts were later synchronized.
“It was a funny story to tell my teachers, why I had to miss school a couple of days to record,” said 17-year-old bassist Gregory Galand.
Recording in small groups is atypical for orchestras, but the health crisis demanded creativity while ensuring that no one contracted Covid-19 (no one did, Repper said).
“I’m very proud that we were able to engineer a way of making it happen despite the pandemic. It was a fantastic experience,” the 32-year-old conductor said.
And the Grammy nomination? A cherry on top.
Noelia Carrasco, a 19-year-old cellist, is now studying music at New York University.
She called finding out that she was a Grammy nominee “so surreal.”
“I had to re-read that, like twice, because I didn’t really process it the first time,” she said.
“It’s just amazing.”
‘A big honor’
The untitled album was produced by Grammy winner Judith Sherman, who this year is nominated as well, as classical producer of the year.
In the wake of the 2020 police murder of George Floyd and the mass uprising that followed, the symphony decided the album would include pieces by Black composers — it features Florence Price, Valerie Coleman and Jessie Montgomery.
“I thought that it would be really important to highlight works by Black composers and works that address systemic racism from the perspective particularly of Black women,” Repper said.
Violinist Jeon said that as a person of color herself, playing music by historically underrepresented composers “really strengthened my connection to the repertoire.”
“I always grew up only listening to Mozart, Bach, Beethoven… all white men,” she said. “And I think that I never really grew up knowing a composer of color.”
Phoebe Ro, a 19-year-old viola player, called it “a big honor” to learn the pieces and record them.
She said Coleman’s “Umoja: Anthem of Unity” was particularly meaningful.
“To be able to come back together, especially during the time of isolation, and to play and reflect the message… of unity — it was a really big honor to perform that,” said Ro.
Unfortunately the youth orchestra members won’t be able to attend Sunday’s ceremony in Los Angeles — tickets are reserved for conductors — but they are planning a watch party to bask in their moment together.
Repper, who will be there, noted it’s his first Grammy nomination as a conductor.
“Many of my idols are on this list: Gustavo Dudamel and John Williams, I mean come on!” he said. “I’m beyond honored to even just be on the same list with them, and to be with the New York Youth Symphony that’s been a really special part of my life for the last six years, it’s wonderful.”
“I’m really proud of the young musicians for taking it and running with it.”