When the New York Youth Symphony Orchestra recorded its first album early in the dark days of the Covid-19 pandemic, violinist Jessica Jeon was just 12 years old.
Now she and her fellow musicians are competing with some of the best orchestras in the world, including the Los Angeles and Berlin Philharmonics, to take home the Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance. It is the first time that a youth symphony participates in this category.
“What a great experience! It’s the first time I recorded in a studio!” Jeon, now 14, exclaimed to AFP at the end of a rehearsal.
After the orchestra’s concerts at Carnegie Hall were canceled due to the pandemic, music director Michael Repper decided to hold a new experiment with his students to highlight their achievements despite the interruption of live performances.
It wasn’t easy: pandemic restrictions meant that recording could only be done in smaller groups, so the young artists had to wear headphones and use a special track for cues. The different parts were subsequently synchronized.
“I had to justify to my teacher why I couldn’t go to class for two days to record“, says Gregory Galand, bassist, 17 years old.
Recording in small groups is not common among orchestrasbut the moment called for creativity while trying to keep nobody from catching covid-19, Repper says.
“I’m very proud that we managed to do it despite the pandemic. It was a wonderful experience,” says the 32-year-old director.
And now he is competing for a Grammy at the gala on February 5.
For Noelia Carrasco, a 19-year-old cellist studying music at New York University, competing for a Grammy is “surreal.”
“I had to read it twice, because I didn’t process it the first time,” he says before concluding that it’s “incredible.”
The untitled album was produced by Grammy Award winner Judith Sherman, who is up for producer of the year this year.
Following the death of Geore Floyd under the knee of a police officer and the popular outrage it generated, the symphony decided to include on the album included pieces by black female composers, like Florence Price, Valerie Coleman and Jessie Montgomery.
“I thought it was important to highlight the work of black composers and compositions that emphasize systemic racism from the perspective, particularly of black women,” explains Repper.
Jessica Jeon says that as a person of color, playing music by underrepresented composers “really strengthened my connection to the repertoire.”
“I grew up listening only to Mozart, Bach, Beethoven…all white,” he says. “Y I think I grew up not knowing a songwriter of color.”
Phoebe Ro, a 19-year-old violist, considers it a “huge honor” to learn the compositions and record them.
For her, Coleman’s hymn to unity was particularly important.
“To be able to come back together, especially during the time of isolation, and touch and reflect the message of unity. It was a great honor to play him,” says Ro.
The young orchestra will not be present at the awards ceremony, as only the conductors are invited, but they plan to meet to see it on television.
“Many of my idols are on the list too: (Venezuelan) Gustavo Dudamel and John Williams,” says Rapper, also a first-time Grammy nominee for directing.