Carnegie Hall launches first national youth orchestra


(CBS News) It's been 70 years since anyone took a stab at forming a national youth orchestra in this country. Now, New York's famed Carnegie Hall has done it in a big way.

"It's one of those things where your eyes and your ears are telling you two different stories," said Clive Gillinson, Executive Director of Carnegie Hall. "You're looking at the stage and you're seeing people you think look like kids, and you shut your eyes and you're hearing a great orchestra"

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For two weeks, 120 of the finest young musicians recently gathered in Purchase, N.Y. They're members of the country's first ever national youth orchestra.

"I've never played in an ensemble of this caliber," said Julia Popham, a violinist in the orchestra. "In fact I didn't know I could ever be part of something this beautiful sounding."

Popham is a 17-year-old who traveled from Golden, Colo., and joined other musicians from 42 states.

The auditions were done online, allowing 2,500 students from all corners of the country to apply.

Popham remembers it fondly, and was so anxious she couldn't sleep for a week.

"I was sitting at the computer with my mom and my mom had been living with my anxiety for quite a while and we said a prayer and we opened the email and then my mom started freaking out and we just started dancing around the kitchen," she said.

After nine days of practice, the orchestra was introduced to their new maestro, world-renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.

The orchestra, along with Gergiev and soloist Joshua Bell, is now in the middle of a five-city world tour, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

The harp strikes a chord in young students

They'll also travel to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and conclude with a nationally televised performance Sunday night in London. The whole experience is financed by Carnegie Hall.

"We felt it was important for the program to be free so that nobody would be feeling, you know there parents would be feeling, 'I can't afford this, I want my kid to do it.' It had to be something where it was only quality that made the decision," said Gillinson.

In addition to performing, the students are asked to serve as cultural ambassadors.

"Well I personally feel America is so pivotal in the world, and culture makes links between people that you can't make in other, any other way," said Gillinson. "Two years ago I was in Moscow and I saw the U.S. Ambassador and talked to him about the project and he said to me when the National Youth Orchestra comes here to Russia and performs, as an ambassador for America, you will be able to do more for American-Russian relations than I can do with 10 treaties."