Every year thousands of new musicians graduate from America’s conservatories. Some become teachers, some join orchestras and others hope for solo careers. The path to stardom in classical music is the same as any in other field: full of mettle-testing twists and turns that are not for the faint of heart.
Successful people can often pinpoint a moment in their lives where someone gave them the break that accelerated their progress. For a good proportion of classical music soloists performing in America over the last 50 years, that break came in the form of Young Concert Artists.
Started in 1961 by New Yorker Susan Wadsworth, YCA emphasizes nurturing a musician’s development slowly and responsibly instead of throwing them straight onto center stage. All YCA winners — names that include Emanuel Ax, Murray Perahia, Dawn Upshaw, Jeremy Denk and Jean-Yves Thibaudet — received debut concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C, helping to ensure major press attention, as well as bookings in small halls and universities all over the country to help them cut their teeth as traveling musicians.
Wadsworth, described by everyone as the embodiment of YCA, offers more than just management services. Most young musicians have spent an enormous number of hours alone in a practice room learning repertoire, not hobnobbing with wealthy patrons and board members. To help bridge the gap, Wadsworth offers advice in deportment, how to interact with donors and even wardrobe tips, should they be needed.
The organization holds three rounds of live auditions every year in New York but in many ways is a sort of anti-competition. Artists can be instrumentalists, singers or composers and are judged against an independent standard rather than one another. The 2010 finals, the first in YCA’s 50-year history to be open to the public, are on Nov. 6 at New York City’s 92nd Street Y.
The YCA story begins in the late ‘50s, just after Wadsworth finished studying piano at the Mannes College of Music.
“I became aware of some extraordinary musicians I was dying to hear in concert,” she said. “After I left Mannes and started working in publishing I realized that they weren’t getting to play anywhere, so I decided that I would just start an organization that would help them.”
Wadsworth found a ground-floor loft in Greenwich Village in which the owner ran a hobby restaurant. “He thought the whole idea of having a concert series there on Monday night when his restaurant was closed was fun. He built a stage [and] I bought red velvet and we hung a curtain in the back.”
With $5,000 secured from her parents and their friends to cover her salary and all the expenses, Wadsworth presented her first series of concerts.
Most people would be content with that. Not Wadsworth.
“I realized that presenting this series wasn’t really doing enough, so somehow, I don’t know how I did it, I started booking concerts for these artists.” This combination of presentation and management is the basis of the model the YCA uses today.
Artistic careers take a long time to build, and although the organization had some strong picks in the first 10 years (Richard Goode, Perahia, Pinchas Zukerman and the Tokyo String Quartet), it took a while before long-term financial supporters saw the value in what Wadsworth was doing.
New York philanthropist Mimi Levitt’s husband, Mortimer, was chairman of the YCA board for 27 years. “He started when they didn’t have their own office. They met in [Wadsworth’s] mother’s office, who was in real estate. When they had a meeting everyone had to pay $2 for a sandwich. We used to have music evenings at our house and we always used musicians from YCA. They would perform first and then there would be a dinner. That way, [my husband] interested some of our more affluent friends, and he got them to join” the YCA board].
Forty years later, the organization has a budget of $2.5 million met by endowment interest, private donations and various foundations.
What makes YCA so popular these days is its enormously high success rate. Without fail, everyone interviewed for this report, including Wadsworth, attributed success to the organization’s unique way of working.
“The dividing line,” said Wadsworth, “is whether when the young person plays there is some added dimension that is just an individual’s gift. A passion and connection to the music that conveys something interesting, unusual and compelling.”
Ax won a spot with YCA in 1973 when he was 23. "[Playing to a standard] is a different kind of pressure,” he said by telephone. “You feel if you do well it will be recognized because it’s not a zero-sum game.” Before the audition, Ax said he was accompanying violin lessons at Juilliard and working occasionally as a ballet pianist. “Without [YCA], I really think I would have been lost. I wouldn’t have got anywhere.”
Figure skating-like judging shenanigans that are rumored to plague traditional classical music competitions are not tolerated. If a jurors has a student taking the audition they are not allowed to vote or communicate with the others about their student’s playing.
Another key component to the YCA formula is that the jury is able to choose as many or as few winners as it likes. In 1975, no one was chosen. In 2005, there were eight winners, including a string quartet.
“There was a time,” said Wadsworth, “where we had one violinist on the roster. We were dying to have more, but we did not pick anybody for four or five years. I think a couple of years ago we picked four violinists.”
Carter Brey, now principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, was trying to make the leap from orchestral to solo playing when he was chosen in 1982. “An even more important reason why YCA is unique is that you don’t get money [as is customary in a competition], you get management services for a number of years, career guidance and patient counseling, and that’s far more valuable.”
Wadsworth is in regular contact with almost all of the organization’s alumni. “If you asked me about some of those less familiar names, I’d tell you that they’ve started a festival that’s been ongoing for 30 years, that they are running a chamber music series, that they are conducting an orchestra. I would say all but a handful of the over 200 artists who’ve started their careers with YCA over the years are very, very actively contributing to the cultural life of the country.”
After 50 years of investing and nurturing artists, the tables have turned. YCA The organization is now in a position to dictate who the next bright young things will be rather than having to persuade concert presenters and donors to give their artists a chance. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke won a YCA spot in 2005 while she was a young artist with the Metropolitan Opera. “YCA was a huge break for me because of the exposure. Even though I’d had really good reviews from the [New York] Times, they were never so focused. Instead of one line, it would be four or five paragraphs about me. YCA had a way of bringing you into the spotlight and creating a bubble of sort of special energy and saying, ‘This is an artist.’ I think YCA is known for that, so people expect as much.”
“You basically have an atmosphere where everything is designed for the person to succeed,” Ax said. “What more can I say? Susan’s the best!”