Youth Orchestra of the Americas

by | May 13, 2002

The brass blazed and the strings soared as the excitement grew among the 350 young musicians from two continents. Only three days before, musicians from the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic and Sinfonica Juvenil de Venezuela had first met to prepare their joint concert in Caracas, Venezuela. The training styles, repertoire preferences, and number of encores were quite distinct, but watching the young people play together was an inspiration that guided all parties to bridge cultural and musical differences. As the concert began in the huge hall in Caracas, the powerful force that great music has to lift the human spirit above the ordinary aggravations of life took the lead. Neither the audience of 3000 from all over Venezuela nor the musicians wanted the concert to end; it stretched to more than four hours, followed by a celebration until the wee hours of the morning. The concert launching the Youth Orchestra of the Americas (YOA), was June 19, 2001, less than nine months after a press conference at the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Organization of American States, announced the formation of the YOA.

Philanthropy, by simple definition means good will toward all people or an effort to promote human welfare. Venture philanthropy, which adds the enthusiasm and energy of the entrepreneurial spirit, can change people and nations. This is especially true when projects are directed toward children and education projects that make you invest in their future, with a high rate of return on investment. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a champion of music education and a member of the YOA Advisory Council, summed up YOA’s mission:

“Music is an interactive language that draws performers and audiences together like no other art form. Using music as a tool of international communication and good will, the Youth Orchestra of the Americas will enable talented young musicians to explore and share their cultures while pursuing their love of music.”

Youth Orchestra of the Americas, a venture philanthropy organization we helped create, is one of the most rewarding with which we have worked. It has the potential not only to change the lives of the participating young musicians, but it also can expand the hopes and horizons of other children and adults throughout the Western Hemisphere. Because we have secured the endorsement of many hemisphere presidents, as well as involving government and business leaders and varied grass roots groups and individuals, YOA is becoming the vibrant strand in a strong cable that can unify the diverse countries of North, Central and South America, in a common, transcendental vision of individual and collective achievement. As Boston Philharmonic Orchestra Conductor Benjamin Zander, a YOA Advisory Council member, observed,

“Here, what’s celebrated is the human spirit; what we’ll find is that the differences in our culture and in our education become wiped out when we settle down with our instruments to Tchaikovsky or Mahler. …It’s an important message politically and it’s an important message for the business community and it’s an important message psychologically for humanity. And the kids will always teach us that.”

YOA’s mission is an ambitious one: 

  • To showcase the Americas’ best young musicians from the Yukon to Patagonia in a world-class symphony orchestra
  • To inspire the Americas’ youth, leadership and its people to achieve their best in a spirit of harmony and high creativity
  • To provide exceptional music and intercultural education to the Americas’ most gifted youth

YOA, with those two essential ingredients of enthusiasm youth and education, began as a simple idea. Bring together 120 exceptionally gifted young (ages 14-24) musicians from every country in the hemisphere. Let them study and rehearse for several weeks each summer under the best instructional faculty and leading conductors, live and learn together in cross-cultural sessions, and then travel and perform in the most renowned concert halls in an eight-city tour, as well as special ensemble performances at other times during the year.

From Idea to Implementation: The Launch

New England Conservatory’s (NEC) Dean of Continuing Education, Mark Churchill, convinced several NEC trustees to provide seed capital for the organization; he approached Debra McKeon, former New York Philharmonic Assistant Manager and general manager of the American-Soviet Youth Orchestra, to spearhead the effort. What followed happened quickly and effectively. Debbie contacted Steve Reifenberg at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) and Steve suggested she speak to me as an active member of the Center’s Advisory Board with an interest in hemispheric arts. I got Debbie’s first call in May 2000. Representatives from the New England Conservatory and Debbie soon met in Washington at our firm, Strategic Investment Group, via conference call with Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu. Founder and director of the Sinfonica Juvenil de Venezuela for the past 20 years, Abreu had become my friend since the days when he was my macro-economics teacher at Universidad Catolica in Caracas. Ana Milena Gaviria, first lady of the Organization of American States (OAS), also at that initial meeting, became an instant enthusiast. YOA is a natural extension of the formidable work the OAS already has under way in promoting young children and music education among the less privileged of Central and South America. From this first meeting, it became clear that the NEC, the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra and OAS had been thinking alike in terms of creating a cross-continental youth orchestra, each working independently within their sphere of influence. YOA combined their forces on this mission.

In September 2000 we had a major launch with a master class conducted by the charismatic Benjamin Zander and fine string players from North and South America. The occasion was the annual meeting in Washington, DC of the Group of Fifty (G50), a group of Latin American industry leaders with broad community and global projections, sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. While an audience of businessmen and politicians watched, the magic of inspirational leadership through a master class transformed the group of young musicians. By November we had incorporated YOA with the help of attorney Roberto Dañino, Harvard Law School, of Wilmer Cutler & Pickering and his associate Leslie Sturtevant, and Strategic’s legal council, Harvard Law School graduate Lourdes Lopez Isa. In the process we created the not-for-profit Vision, Inc., which would serve as counter signatory of the agreement with The New England Conservatory.

With the immediate positive response, cash and in-kind contributions, YOA began to build a network of support by enlisting the financial help, advice and commitment of artists such as Placido Domingo and Yo-Yo Ma, U.S. government officials including President George W. Bush and his wife. States, leaders from international corporations such as Booz Allen and Hamilton, which contributed the initial strategy/feasibility plans, and organizations such as the American Symphony Orchestra League and The Americas Society. YOA has recently signed a protocol agreement with the OAS, in which the OAS formally supports mutually approved projects for YOA. In January 2002 Deutsche Bank became the sponsor of YOA’s inaugural tour.

Where we stand now; what comes next?

In the months since that first concert, YOA has developed rapidly. Auditions are underway to select the 120 musicians who will form the orchestra for the 2002 concert tour, which will play in the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Venezuela. Each participating country, according to population size and the local quality of music education, will sponsor at least one musician. Every musician will participate on full-scholarship including travel, accommodations and expenses in order to facilitate merit-based selection In Latin America, the youth orchestra network and ministers of culture are promoting open auditions and supporting the costs students incur to participate in the auditions. In the U.S. and Canada YOA has contacted schools and private teachers and issued press releases to increase awareness. Every student will reapply to participate each year. Country Teams, under the guidance of YOA Managing Director, Debra McKeon, and with the help of an actively involved multi-country board, are meeting with government groups, foundations, corporations, and individuals to raise the $10,000 scholarships needed for each student and ongoing administrative costs. The YOA teams also are working with major corporations to obtain sponsors for travel and accommodations during the tour, as well as to secure venues for special performances.

The 2002 tour, which will play in the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Venezuela, will begin with a Boston concert following three weeks of rehearsal and cross-cultural educational sessions at the New England Conservatory. We are planning a June Inaugural Tour Gala honoring major supporters in Washington, D.C. The July 30 launch concert, From Mozart to Mambo, at Wolf Trap will feature Yo-Yo Ma and National Symphony Orchestra conductor Leonard Slatkin, both founding YOA Advisory Council members. The entire evening, including receptions sponsored by Western Hemisphere embassies, will be an opportunity for the audience and performers to learn more about the diverse cultures we share in the Americas, our musical roots and more importantly, the world-class quality of our young musicians.

Technology helps make it happen

Technology has played a major role in the YOA’s rapid development. We could not have advanced so quickly without it. Teleconferencing and e-mail allow members of the board of directors and country teams to meet regularly without extensive travel. Our most recent telephonic board meeting connected about 20 members in six cities. The production of CDs also helps disseminate the work of the Youth Orchestra.

How far can YOA go in providing social growth?

Where will this venture philanthropy project lead? The possibilities are very exciting. Through YOA’s network, discussions have begun to pilot the unique and highly successful and internationally acclaimed Venezuelan Youth Orchestra model to inner city schools in the U.S.  Maestro Abreu has offered his extensive experience in Venezuelan schools.

Music can broaden the horizons of children from even the remotest villages of Central or South America or the most poverty-stricken neighborhood in the United States. It can inspire a child and change his life, with the ripple effect of changing everyone and everything around him. Jorge Saade, Minister of Culture at the Embassy of Ecuador, testifies to the dramatic effect his experience as a member of a youth orchestra had on his life. In addition to a love of fine music, he learned discipline, order, cooperation, and a wider view of the world. A Venezuelan youth from a detention center stated in an interview that he had no idea how much more rewarding holding a clarinet could be than a holding a gun. A former gang member, he could not believe anyone would even let him hold an instrument, thinking he would steal it. He said the youth orchestra totally changed his life, teaching him how to treat people, act in a group and get along in the community. A teacher in a small Venezuelan village agrees that while music doesn’t always change the physical conditions, it changes how children think, what is in their hearts and minds.

We have also begun work on a book/CD, Read Me the Music, to allow parents and teachers to read poems, fairy tales and essays while listening to age-appropriate works of classical music, as a means of introducing the magic and beauty of classical music to young children. Before the end of the year, we hope to have launched a hemispheric competition for an “Anthem of the Americas” among young classical and popular composers.

We have our hands full, but everyone’s spirits are soaring. With not much money and overtime effort we feel we can make a historic difference in creating a new vision for the Americas, a vision that brings the best of our very diverse and new cultures and transforms our hopes and dreams into real individual and social growth.

Spring 2002Volume I, Number 3

Hilda Ochoa Brillembourg, President and CEO of the Strategic Investment Group, is Chairman of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas. She is also a member of the DRCLAS Advisory Committee. Donna Lauderdale is Assistant to the President of Strategic Investment Group and a Board Member of YOA. For more information on the YOA, please visit our website. Or, if you are interested in becoming actively involved or participating in the program, the authors can be reached by phone at 703.243.4433 or via e-mail at <>.

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