“I think in the whole music profession there’s this idea that this is such a great tradition, and the future of the tradition depends on reimagining it and revivifying it,” said Tilson Thomas, the orchestra’s founder, artistic director and dominant personality.
“This has to come from giving young people the opportunity to be part of that process,” said Tilson Thomas, who also is music director of the San Francisco Symphony.
“Not only are people focusing on the training that gives them the maximum competitive edge to go after these big orchestral jobs, but also they’re thinking of other opportunities of working in music. I think making people realize that if you really love music and you want to create an interesting life for yourself that there are a number of ways of doing that, not necessarily the traditional paths, and that New World enables you to explore some of those.”
Among those choosing a nontraditional path is violist Katie Wyatt, who labored for years at her instrument in order to play in an orchestra. But after traveling to South America and seeing Venezuela’s famous El Sistema classical music program for poor children, she returned for her second season at New World with new ideas of what she wanted to do.
“My mind was made up that I was going to do more than take orchestra auditions, that I wanted to shape the way that people care about music in their community,” she said.
She called her teacher, Robert Vernon, principal viola of the Cleveland Orchestra, in tears. “I thought I was failing him,” she said. “I called him and said ‘I’m so sorry. You’ve invested so much in me as a viola player, so much time preparing all this repertoire for the auditions, and now I really think that what I want to do is be a leader in music and social change,’ ” she said.
“He said, ‘Katie, knock it off. Everything that we’ve been preparing you for has led you to this day. All of the passion that you have for music and the way that it has changed your life you will share with others and inspire others and be excellent on the job.’ ”
Wyatt went on to found KidZNotes, an organization that provides free instruments, music lessons and ensemble training to poor children in Durham, N.C. This school year, the program will enroll 200 children. “I wanted to shape how music could build a community for the good,” she said.
Of New World's 900 or so alumni, the largest number have taken positions in American orchestras. Among these are the Boston Symphony with six alumni, the Chicago Symphony with three, the Metropolitan Opera with three, the San Francisco Symphony with 10 and the Cleveland Orchestra with 11. Employing the largest number is the Kansas City Symphony — dubbed “New World Symphony West — with a whopping 23, more than one fourth of its roster.
New World wouldn’t be successful in placing alumni in major orchestras if it just turned out PR-minded musical entrepreneurs. Achieving mastery of the piano, cello or clarinet to the level demanded by a top orchestra requires a level of commitment and discipline seen in few professional fields. At the Cleveland Orchestra, for example, everything depends on an audition of difficult solo works and excerpts from the orchestral literature, with the first round conducted behind a screen. There are no interviews. Such soft skills as the ability to speak to an elementary school class count for exactly zero.