A COVID-19 alternative to performing turned a recording meant to keep young musicians connected to their craft into a historic Grammy Award for conductor Michael Repper and the 70 members of the New York Youth Symphony (NYYS) who played on the album, including highly acclaimed pianist Emily-Jane Luo, a Scarsdale High School senior.
The Feb. 5 Grammy win was historic as it was the first time a youth symphony had won the award for Best Orchestral Performance.
Watching on television at home with her family and seeing Repper on stage accepting the Grammy was “emotional” for Luo.
“It was the first time a young orchestra got nominated and actually won the Grammy Award, so we were all very thrilled and hopefully it will inspire other young musicians around the world,” Luo said. “And also the pieces themselves, they're from minority composers, female composers, so I hope this will open up more musicians to explore their works because they are truly extraordinary pieces.”
The nominations were announced on Nov. 15, 2022, and NYYS was in the top five along with a group of heavy-hitter conductors: Doug Perkins (Musicians Of The University Of Michigan Department Of Chamber Music & University Of Michigan Percussion Ensemble), Gustavo Dudamel (Los Angeles Philharmonic), Christopher Rountree (Wild Up) and John Williams (Berliner Philharmoniker).
“When we got the nomination and we heard about that we were all thrilled,” Luo said. “I told my teachers and they all sent me words of encouragement and congratulations. And then yeah, the Grammy Awards was just another extraordinary moment for us.”
Repper, 32, is the second youngest to win the award as a conductor, and was already a rising star in the field prior to the album and the Grammy. Luo called Repper “a hidden gem in New York.”
This is Repper’s sixth and final season with NYYS, in its 60th season, and he feels he’s leaving the group well prepared for the future “as it is now with this tremendous international recognition.”
“It was just an honor to be considered among the field,” Repper told the Inquirer. “Everybody was in amazingly strong ensembles with amazing conductors, so we’re thrilled for this recognition. Certainly so much of the credit goes to the wonderful young musicians. They really rallied behind the idea, took it and ran with it. Look at what can happen.”
The winning album features Florence Price’s “Ethiopia’s Shadow in America” and “Piano Concerto in One Movement,” Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja” and Jessie Montgomery’s “Soul.” All three composers are African American women and this was the first-ever recording of the recently discovered original orchestration of “Piano Concerto in One Movement.”
Repper had the idea to make the recording during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 after all live performances were canceled.
“I was sitting at home thinking I didn’t want to do nothing,” he said. “Doing nothing wasn’t an option. We wanted to create a compelling project that could still be educational and rewarding in the same way that we try to provide for our program always, even if we couldn’t perform. My mind turned to recording. I thought this is a tremendous chance to teach the orchestra how to record. There’s certainly a different style of playing and we certainly could do it.”
The symphony recorded in shifts in November 2020 instead of all together — typical for some genres, but not an orchestra — to keep social distancing prior to vaccine availability. The group was constantly being tested for COVID-19 and wore masks when possible during rehearsals.
“Not a single person got COVID in the meantime, the musicians learned a lot and we won a Grammy, so I would say it went pretty well,” Repper said.
Luo recorded with the winds and percussion, so she never got to hear the string part, so it was difficult playing and not knowing exactly what the final product would sound like as some of the pieces had not yet been recorded by anyone. The musicians wore headphones to help with their beats and entrances in addition to Repper’s cues.
“It was pretty difficult because even if you’re like millisecond late then that mistake can have a pretty big impact,” Luo said.
The pieces were divided into sections over the final daylong recording session, so some parts were played over and over again. “It was very tiring, but since it’s music and we’re musicians we really enjoyed the activity,” Luo said.
Not being able to play with other musicians for several months in 2020 was a difficult adjustment for Luo. “Performing with others is really something that is the highlight of my musical experience,” she said. “So I was very thrilled. I was blessed and honored to be able to perform with such a wonderful youth symphony orchestra. It was a great experience.”
The album was released in February 2022. In April, the album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Traditional Classical Music charts and the next month it was No. 1.
NYYS typically features 100 to 110 musicians ages 12-22. Luo was a high school sophomore when the recording was made.
Repper called Luo, who has tried out for and made NYYS three times, “a joy.”
“She is remarkably bright,” he said. “She is a singularly gifted pianist and is accomplished in many other fields as well. I understand she is a published writer and a certified genius by me. She is fantastic and is also a tremendous colleague to everyone in the orchestra and I have enjoyed working with her deeply. Like all of the musicians in the orchestra I learn a lot from them as well. They make me grow as a musician and as a person. I am very thankful to work with Emily-Jane.”
Up until this year Luo was the symphony’s lone pianist.
“It’s a very, very impressive feat getting into New York Youth Symphony on any instrument and it is a huge endeavor and a big accomplishment, but certainly for instruments where there is only one spot — or in this case this year there are two — it is a huge accomplishment and well deserved,” Repper said.
Luo moved from Canada to Scarsdale when she was 5 and her new best friend from preschool had a keyboard and started playing for Luo. “Since you play with two hands, the different tones, the layers and the colors, it truly captivated me,” she said. “So I asked my parents to start and I didn't have to do a lot of begging. They were both very glad, and happy to encourage me in my passion.”
Right away Luo had perfect pitch, according to her early teacher, as she immersed herself in playing piano. “Ever since then I’m really blessed to be able to perform around the world,” she said. “The best part I think is not only meeting the extraordinary musicians, but also the audience members who, they come up after you perform backstage and they tell you their stories. And so to listen to them, their interpretations and to be able to even inspire someone for just a moment is really meaningful.”
Luo entered her first competition at age 7. She won and her prize was performing at Carnegie Hall for the first time of many to come. She debuted her solo recital when she was 10 years old at the Beijing Concert Hall and made her concerto debut in Italy when she was 11. The next year she debuted in Russia under Alexander Ghindin and the Moscow Kaluga Orchestra.
Luo performed Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 — “one of the most exquisite compositions,” she said — with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra on Dec. 25, 2019, one of her final performances before COVID.
In the fall of 2021, the symphony was able to perform live again and got to experience the pieces from their own album at Carnegie Hall in their full form, a powerful experience for Luo. She also had many of her teachers at her New York recital debut at Merkin Hall in the city around that time.
Luo has performed at Royal Albert Hall, Moscow National Gallery, Saint Petersburg Music Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Musikverein in Vienna, and among the awards she’s won are the Grand Prize at Festival Internacional de Piano de Málaga and Paderewski International Piano Competition.
While the awards earned and venues played are great achievements for Luo, she said what’s most meaningful is “to connect with the music, to connect with the other musicians, the people who are listening to you who share their stories after the concert.” She added, “I think music is really a very human activity, so in order to really make an impact you want to be able to connect with other people’s souls and hopefully inspire them.”
In addition to music, Luo has won state and national awards for French language and extemporaneous speaking. She has a love of science and engineering as well.
Scarsdale High School orchestra director Amédée Williams called Luo a “star” pianist and has featured her in after-school chamber groups that have garnered honors at competition, including at Lincoln Center. For the orchestra, however, she plays violin.
Luo started playing violin when she was 3 years old. She “hated it,” but picked the violin up again in third grade and found a new appreciation for the instrument.
Williams is looking forward to taking Luo and the high school orchestra to Italy and Switzerland next week, the group’s first time traveling since before COVID. It will be his first time taking a Grammy-winning student on the road.
“It is really exciting and she must be absolutely thrilled,” Williams said. “I can’t say I won a Grammy. I’ve had former teachers that have been nominated and haven’t won, so it’s a big deal. She’s a very hard worker and she’s very fun in class, too. She’s pretty quick with a joke. She’s a complete pleasure to have in class.”
Luo plans to pursue a degree in business, with hopes of continuing to play music on the side, noting there are “a lot of musicians on Wall Street.” Her 12-year-old sister, Scarsdale middle schooler Emma Sophie, is a talented violinist, who is possibly “more extraordinary,” according to Luo, who looks forward to playing together for many years to come.
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