Sharing the Gift

Rebecca Young on the joys of harmony, the fun of creativity and the passion of sharing music with the next generation

Volume 117, No. 8September, 2017

Interview by Bob Pawlo

Rebecca Young. Photo by Chris Lee

When violist Rebecca Young joined Local 802 in 1985, she didn’t know that less than a year later, at age 19, she would become the New York Philharmonic’s youngest member (and the second youngest member in its history). Today, she is the Philharmonic’s associate principal viola and the host of its Very Young People’s Concerts, where she has tap-danced, juggled, ridden a scooter around the stage and even sung Gilbert & Sullivan. Her philosophy is less to educate than, as she puts it, “to make sure the audiences have so much fun they want to come back!”

Young has also performed with many other renowned groups, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra (where she served as principal viola) and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. She can be seen sitting in the tree on the cover of the Sony Classical recording of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, where she performed with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Pamela Frank, and bassist Edgar Meyer.

In 1999, Young joined New York Philharmonic Principal Viola Cynthia Phelps in the world premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Two Paths: Music for Two Solo Violas and Symphony Orchestra.” The work was commissioned for them by Tomoko Masur, wife of Philharmonic Music Director Emeritus Kurt Masur and herself a former violist.

Young can also be seen leading the viola section of the All-Star Orchestra, a popular educational TV series about classical music. Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently sat down with Rebecca Young to learn about her passion for sharing music with the next generation.

Bob Pawlo: What are your first memories of music?

Rebecca Young: My parents were both music lovers – they met in line at the Metropolitan Opera. Mom was an opera singer and a pianist. Dad was a doctor and very bad amateur cellist, even though he loved to play! By the time I was two-and-a-half, they were taking me to the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts with Leonard Bernstein conducting. I would roll up two programs and hold one under my chin and use the other one as a bow to pretend that I was playing a violin. By five years old, I was taking lessons. One of my earliest memories is playing along with a recording we had of the Vivaldi A minor violin concerto. I couldn’t read music yet. I did it by ear. Way back then, I knew I would be a musician. More than that, I knew I’d be in the New York Philharmonic! It wasn’t a goal, just a fact.

As kids, my brother and I were always being taken to the ballet and to Broadway shows. My mom took me to see the Philadelphia Orchestra whenever they were in town. I remember meeting Norman Carol, Philadelphia’s concertmaster. Mr. Carol lifted my chin and looked at my neck, where any violin player worth her weight should have that distinctive “violin boo boo.” I hadn’t developed one yet. He declared, “You’re not practicing enough!” I was kind of mortified. When I went home, I practiced and practiced until I finally developed that coveted mark. I felt like I had joined an exclusive club!

Bob Pawlo: Great story! Who were some other early influences?

Rebecca Young: My most influential teacher was Fannie Chase. I was with her from age 8 until 13, when I got into the pre-college division at Juilliard. She taught me every bit of technique I know. She was tough, but I adored her. She made me want to work hard and play well. I think the best teachers are like that: positive and inspiring. They don’t have to beat you up. They give you great information and get you to beat yourself up!

Bob Pawlo: Then you got into Juilliard?

Rebecca Young: Yes. When I first got to the pre-college program, I felt like I had finally arrived on my planet and was meeting my people for the first time. We were all speaking the same language! I had come from a regular public school in New Jersey where I was the violin nerd who practiced all the time and got to leave school early to go to the city for lessons. At Juilliard we were all loving the same thing. We all understood how dedicated we had to be. It was kind of profound, really, and a total blast!

Bob Pawlo: What made you switch to viola?

Rebecca Young: There were two reasons. First, when I was a kid, I would always find myself singing the inner voices of tunes I heard, from Sting and Stevie Wonder to commercials on TV. I would get other people to sing the melody, and I would figure out the harmony to sing along with it. Most violinists want to play first violin. I always preferred second violin because I loved those inner voices. Then there was a time in pre-college when I was getting bored with my violin lessons. I almost quit music altogether to become a doctor like my father. A musician friend of the family suggested I switch to viola and study with Eugene Becker from the Philharmonic. Mr. Becker was incredibly inspiring and helped me regain my “musical mojo.” I had found my voice in the viola.

Bob Pawlo: How did you become the youngest member of the New York Philharmonic?

Rebecca Young: During my senior year at Juilliard, an audition at the Philharmonic was posted in the union paper. At the time I was dating my then-boyfriend Jack, who lived in New York City. I thought, “Gee, if I get a job in New York, I’ll have a shot at a long-term relationship with this guy!” I knew I was too young to win the job. I didn’t even know any of the excerpts yet. I did have a lot of orchestral experience, but most of it was in school, not professional. I took the audition anyway. Everyone was surprised that I even made it into the finals, because of my age. When Zubin Mehta called me at home that night to tell me I had won the job I was absolutely shocked! At 20 years old, I was the second youngest player to ever win a job with the Philharmonic. (The youngest was Stanley Drucker at age 19.) I went back to Juilliard that night where we were filming a live concert for a television show that was celebrating the school’s 80th anniversary. Everyone there was as shocked as I was that I had gotten the job. My success became a poignant part of the evening’s celebration. By the way, I ended up marrying Jack!

Bob Pawlo: How did you think you won the audition?

Rebecca Young: Well, there’s a lot more to being a successful musician than simply having good chops. There are plenty of really fine players who fail because they don’t listen to what’s going on around them. You can never (O.K., almost never) play on autopilot. There are plenty of excellent players who get into an orchestra, but don’t get tenure because they can’t or just don’t listen to what’s going on around them. There’s more to being a fine orchestral player than simply being a good technician. And it takes a lot to be a good colleague, too, but that’s another subject.

At the beginning of my sophomore year, one of my teachers insisted I take an audition for the Chicago Symphony, just for the experience of auditioning. When I got to the hall in Chicago, people were warming up on excerpts like they were breathing them. I realized I was nowhere near as prepared as I needed to be. Thank goodness the audition was behind a screen! I don’t even know what came out of my instrument. But I learned something valuable from the experience. At that level, plenty of people will play all the right notes, rhythms, tempi and dynamics correctly. Everything may be in tune. Everything may be accurate. So how do you stand out without sticking out? You have to make music! Another big part of it is battling your nerves. You have to find a way to play when you’re nervous. What’s funny is that when I auditioned for the Philharmonic, I was hardly nervous at all. That’s probably because I didn’t think I had a shot at winning that job!

Bob Pawlo: Who have been some of your favorite conductors to play for over the years?

Rebecca Young: There was nobody like Leonard Bernstein. I worked with him as a student in Tanglewood. He’d rehearse us right through our lunch hour, but we ate it up. We soaked it up like sponges! Eventually, they’d have to come and tell him that we kids had to get to our next coachings. When I came to the Philharmonic, there was Lenny, kissing everybody, telling Bible stories from the podium, making incomparably glorious music – every note of which was brimming with meaning!

I met Kurt Masur at Tanglewood, too. I was principal the week he was conducting Mahler’s First Symphony. When he first came to the Philharmonic as a guest conductor, he stopped in the middle of a rehearsal, looked straight at me and said, “Rebecca! Nice to see you!” My colleagues were impressed. I didn’t even know he had known my name! I loved Maestro Masur and had a deep respect for his musicianship. Some people took offense when he got frustrated and yelled, as if he were taking it out on them. They took it personally. I, on the other hand, equated it to when I was a kid, frustrated with a difficult passage, and I would bang my bow against the wall or stamp my foot. In my opinion, Masur’s yelling had to do with his passion for the music. To me, that’s why we do what we do. People say the New York Philharmonic is the greatest orchestra in the world. But we’re only as good as the conductor in front of us. It’s like ballroom dancing: you’re only as good as your partner. An orchestra, no matter how good, can’t do it on its own.

Bob Pawlo: How have conditions changed or gotten better for women over the years, in your experience?

Rebecca Young: I’ve never experienced problems in that department. The biggest change is that there are more women’s dressing rooms because there are so many of us!

Bob Pawlo: I understand you’re involved in the children’s outreach program in the Philharmonic.

Rebecca Young: I am the host of the Very Young People’s Concerts. I’ve been told I was asked to do it because I’m a big, silly kid myself. Hosting and writing material for these half-hour shows is my favorite role at the Philharmonic. Instead of playing my viola, I get to tap-dance, juggle, sing and make people laugh. It’s quite different from the Young People’s Concerts created by Leonard Bernstein. He was so dignified and his Young People’s programs were fun, but, at the same time, they were more seriously educational. Dignified I’m not! My goal is to make the programs so enjoyable that both the kids and their parents want to come back. We’re playing great chamber music for a very young audience, 3 to 6 year-olds. The music is always front and center in these programs, but there’s plenty of action going on around the musicians to help keep the kids engaged. I love this quote by Louis Armstrong. He said, “If we’re not having fun playing the music, how’s the audience going to have fun listening to us?”

Bob Pawlo: What about your juggling experience? Can you tell us about that?

Rebecca Young: The orchestra produced a stylized, theatrical version of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka.” It was very creative and original, with little scenes acted out by the musicians, projected above the orchestra in real time. Sometime during the planning phase, the director, Doug Fitch, called a meeting to explain the project to us. He asked if anyone would be willing to share any particular talents during this production. I’ll do anything that will get me out of my chair and allow me to goof around or otherwise have fun and be creative. Now, I am not a dancer. I am not an actor. But I happily signed up! There were professional puppeteers and actors on stage, with whom I got to interact. At a precise moment in the music, I had to put my viola down, strut with attitude to the edge of the stage out in front of the orchestra, then theatrically produce three scarves from the waistband of my skirt and start juggling them. After a few bars, one of the actors grabbed the scarves away while some of the others and I went into a well-choreographed, well-rehearsed juggling routine with numerous props. It was the most fun I’ve had on stage in 32 years! I often think I’m in the wrong part of the business!

Bob Pawlo: What advice would you give to musicians beginning their careers now?

Rebecca Young: I think that beyond being a great musician, there is a big emphasis these days being placed on community outreach. Classical music seems to be in danger of becoming a dinosaur. We need to work harder than ever to make sure it survives so that we can continue to develop audiences of the future. There’s so much value, especially for children, in just being exposed to the music – and even greater value in playing an instrument. When kids play instruments, they’re learning how to play on a team. They’re learning discipline. They’re learning social skills. It’s nothing short of wonderful! Today you need to know how to share your love of music, perhaps by developing shows such as our Very Young People’s Concerts, even if you’re not planning to become a teacher. When you share what you love, it feeds your own love for it. In any job, if you’re just plugging away, you can start to feel like a factory worker. Playing a symphony over and over again, even with different conductors or in different halls, can wear you down. But when I glance out into the audience and someone’s face is lit up as if this symphony is the most wondrous experience of their life, it reminds me why I became a musician in the first place. Starting with the youngest audiences (and their parents!), we all have to find ways to share what we do with as many people as we can. It’s as good for us as it is for them. Plus, it’s vital for the future of the art and the business of classical music.