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Cellist Esther Yu Joins America’s Top Youth Orchestra

By Sol Hurwitz

Pullquote: The Shostakovich Concerto No. 1, one of the most difficult in the cello repertory, is one Esther Yu has always wanted to play “because it’s so gusty.” “

Esther Yu was in orchestra class at Rye High School when she got the news: she was one of 116 students nationwide to win a coveted spot in the prestigious National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.

“I was so excited, I told my orchestra teacher, Ms. Kraut, and my stand partner, and I texted my mom,” Esther recalled.  

The orchestra’s talented musicians, ages 16 to 19, hail from 33 states. Esther was one of 11 from New York. About 1,000 students across the country competed for the honor. 

“I knew she’d make it, and I was so happy for her,” beamed Lynn Kraut, Rye High and Middle School Orchestra director. “She’s phenomenal. She’s the best player I’ve ever taught.”

The orchestra’s 2017 debut concert will take place on July 19 at Purchase College’s Performing Arts Center, followed by a performance at Carnegie Hall on July 21. The group will then tour Latin America with concerts in Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia. 

Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the young musicians. The program includes Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine”, and Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Apu: Tone Poem for Orchestra”, a new work commissioned by Carnegie Hall.

Esther, 17, is no stranger to winning competitions and awards. Her résumé lists more than 20, starting at age 9 when she was chosen to perform David Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody Op. 68 on “Young Artists Showcase”, the WQXR radio show.

Last year, Esther set her sights on winning the rigorous National Youth Orchestra audition last year. “I wanted a chance to meet and work with musicians I’ve never met before and to learn about their different styles and how they interpret the music,” she said. “And of course I’m looking forward to going to Latin America, seeing that culture and being able to perform there, and seeing how different audiences react to the music.”

Esther has the ideal profile for the National Youth Orchestra. Founded and managed by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, the program recruits highly accomplished young musicians with strong academic records and leadership skills, who will serve as ambassadors for classical music in their educational and professional lives. Full-time conservatory students may not apply.

In preparation for the orchestra’s summer tour, Esther will complete an intensive two-week training residency at Purchase College where she will attend rehearsals and master classes and receive coaching from principal players of leading orchestras. Esther’s coaches will be Joseph Johnson, principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony, and Wei Yu, principal cellist of the Detroit Symphony. There are also opportunities to perform in chamber groups, in Esther’s case a quintet. “It’s another side to the experience and another chance to interact with musicians I’ve never met before,” she explained.

Neither of Esther’s parents is a musician, but her mother worked for the EMI Recording Studios in Korea and collected a large library of classical music CD’s. A recording by Mstislav Rostropovich captivated Esther as a child. “I was really attracted to the sound of the cello,” she said.

When she was 7, Esther began taking lessons. At age 10, she entered the Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division, a Saturday program in New York City for gifted young musicians. Five years later, in 2015, she won the Yonkers Philharmonic Concerto competition and performed the Lalo concerto with the orchestra. Last year she played the final movement of the Elgar concerto with the Rochester Philharmonic on the National Public Radio program “From the Top”.

For her senior recital at Juilliard next year, Ester will perform the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1, one of the most difficult in the cello repertory. “It’s always been a piece I’ve wanted to play, because it’s so gutsy,” she said. “There are a lot of fortissimo dynamics and a lot of places where you have to use all the arm strength you have. It’s very exciting and very energy-consuming.” Her favorite recording of the piece is by Yo-Yo Ma. 

Esther’s Juilliard Pre-College teacher, Clara Kim, encourages students to harness the power of body language as a means of expressing themselves physically and visually. “Even though music is about hearing, it’s at least 30 percent visual,” Esther explained. “When I’m engaged in a piece physically and using my entire body, the sound I produce really captures the emotions I’ve wanted to convey. If I look bored, and I’m just sitting still, the audience won’t be as responsive.”

A straight-A student at Rye High School, Esther is attuned to the need to balance her musical activities with her academic work. “I think it’s really important never to forget about either one of them,” she said, “and to use my time as efficiently as possible, like getting a lot of my homework done in school. During the school year I practice about two hours a day, every day. If I’m preparing for a competition, it’s more. During finals week it’s less.”

What does Esther do for fun? “I do what a normal high schooler does: talking and hanging out with my friends, going shopping, everyday things,” she said.

Bringing classical music to the needy is a high priority for Esther. She performs monthly at the Mount Sinai Hospital Drug Rehabilitation Center in New York City, where her concerts are greeted with enthusiastic applause. “I was uneasy at first,” she admitted, “but after I played a Debussy Cello Sonata, this big guy with tattoos all over his body came up and told me, ‘You brought me to a different world’.”

Esther has high praise for the music program at the Rye public schools. “It’s a great place for young musicians because there are so many opportunities to play, not only in Rye but in county and state music competitions,” she says. “Ms. Kraut has devoted so much time and energy to the program, and she’s very experienced. She’s been a huge, huge supporter and influence on my musical career. Ms. Kim at Osborn Elementary School was also extremely supportive of me.” 

The rising Rye High senior is often asked what’s next, college or conservatory? 

“I have a lot of passions other than cello,” she said. “I’m going to keep music on the side but not major in it. I’ll definitely be doing orchestra, and I’ll continue to take lessons. I know there are universities that have great music programs, like Northwestern and Princeton.” She added: “I would not pursue a music career — I’ll probably be majoring in some kind of science, maybe biology.”

How does Esther view the future for classical music? “A lot of people say classical music is dying, and it’s unfortunate that some orchestras are closing down,” she observed. “But there are so many young musicians I know, who are so passionate about classical music that I think the future is in good hands. There’s a whole new generation that will keep classical music alive.” 

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National Youth Orchestra tickets

Purchase College, July 19, 7:30 p.m. $30-$50

Call 251-6200 or visit tickets.artscenter.org

Carnegie Hall, July 21, 8 p.m. $26-$65

Call 212-247-7800 or visit carnegiehall.org


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