WASHINGTON - On Saturday night, an elite orchestra made up of the best young musicians across the country, led by conductor Valery Gergiev, will take the stage at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in Washington.
Called the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, it was founded by Carnegie Hall, and it's in its maiden season. It's doing something none of the other prominent youth orchestras are doing: taking a bunch of talented kids on tour to some of the leading venues in the world.
Along with the Kennedy Center, this group will play at the Proms in London, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory and the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg.
"There's a great, great culture of youth orchestras in this country," said Clive Gillinson, the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall in New York. "But none of them act, as a central, core part of their mission, as youth ambassadors for America."
Those ambassadors include Michelle Hembree, 16, the only musician from Idaho with the group.
The French horn player helped kick off the series of performances Thursday at the Performance Arts Center at Purchase College, State University of New York. On Sunday, she'll board a plane for Moscow. She was selected as part of a brass quartet to perform for the Russian Embassy.
The teenager has played the instrument for six years, said Carol Hembree, her mother.
"One day she just came home and said, 'I want to play the French horn,' " Carol Hembree said. "Over the years, she's found out she really does have a knack for the horn."
Apparently so. The straight-A Boise High School student has already been accepted to the renowned Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. Michelle still needs to complete a final audition, but Eastman's horn professor has already told the teen he would "take her in a heartbeat," Carol Hembree said.
The musician, who will enter her senior year at Boise High in the fall, plans to pursue a double degree at Eastman, blending music with a major in industrial engineering.
Her family will watch her perform with the youth orchestra Saturday - most for the first time. Carol Hembree traveled to New York to watch Thursday's performance, while father Kent and other family members flew from Idaho on Friday.
AROUND THE WORLD
Carnegie's Gillinson is looking to the kind of touring, high-visibility ensemble represented by the Simon Bolivar Symphony of Venezuela, or Europe's Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. Or, more to the point, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, which Gillinson, a former cellist, remembers as "one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life."
There's a certain idealism built into the idea of a youth orchestra; that's part of its appeal. Youth orchestras offer a concrete vision of young people behaving in ways older people would like them to - working hard, dressing well (though the NYO-USA's red, white and blue outfits with Converse sneakers are an exception) and immersed in great art.
Gillinson's vision for the NYO-USA is certainly idealistic. He sees it as an elite body made up of "the very, very best young players in the country, bringing them together in a way that everybody inspires everybody else." It will epitomize a traditional, not to say antiquated, vision of cultural diplomacy, traveling each year to "a different part of the world, which is important to America's relationships with the world."
Statesman reporter Katie Terhune contributed.