Talent, genius, capacity, potential: Youth Orchestra celebrates banner year 

by | Dec 30, 2023

2023 includes performance at Carnegie Hall with special guest Princess Anne

The New Brunswick Youth Orchestra’s‘ clarity of ideas’, inspiring children to achieve their potential through learning and performing orchestral music, made 2023 a year to remember as an orchestral powerhouse that continues to defy expectations.

Capping the year’s highlights was an inspiring performance before an audience at Carnegie Hall in New York City in June. In May, the orchestra was the featured performer at the 8th Hussars 175th Commemorative Concert featuring a special guest, Her Royal Highness (HRH) The Princess Royal, Princess Anne. Princess Anne is Colonel-in-Chief of the regiment.

“It was a banner year for the NBYO. These incredible experiences of our youth, the music, and the orchestra is the culmination of many years of work and is perhaps the high point in the organization’s history,” said Ken MacLeod, president and CEO of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra. 

Maestro Antonio Delgado, NBYO Conductor and Music Director, agreed that 2023 is the best year so far for the youth orchestra.

“The way we performed at every concert in New Brunswick was fantastic. We always aim to do our best, but we are getting more and more students entering the NBYO (from Sistema NB) that are high-calibre musicians,” Delgado said. “The two special events, playing for the Hussar anniversary and Her Royal Highness, and the special performance at Carnegie Hall, should make everyone proud of our talents.” 

The Carnegie Hall concert completes a full circle for MacLeod. His initial foray as a parent volunteer in 2002 helped organize a tour of the famed concert hall. The tour budget was $140,000, almost six times the annual budget for the struggling youth orchestra at the time. 

“The NBYO received an invitation (in 2002) to perform at a festival in Carnegie. There was no intention to do it. I remember saying, ‘How can you not say yes?'” MacLeod said. “When we finished that performance, people said, ‘How are you going to beat that?'”

MacLeod said since 2002, the NBYO has performed in Italy and the Great Hall of the People in China and competed at Summa Cum Laude Music Festival in Vienna.

‘A pebble in my shoe’

The path to the 2023 performance at Carnegie Hall started with an irritating television commercial. Car maker Nissan produced an ad depicting a youth orchestra playing off-key while a parent seeks auditory solace inside a luxury SUV. MacLeod was annoyed by the stereotype.

“When I saw that ad, it was like a pebble in my shoe. My experience every day is with kids with talent, genius, capacity and potential. The ad was a tired old stereotype.”

The irritation inspired a video rebuttal filmed at Saint John’s historic Imperial Theatre. ‘An INFINITY of Young Talent’ has received more than 2 million views on different media platforms around the globe, including ‘Two Set Violin in Australia and ‘ClassicFM’ in the United Kingdom. Carnegie Hall’s staff saw the viral video and asked the NBYO to return. 

“Once again, we said yes. We worked really hard for the whole season; we had special concerts all around the province leading up to Carnegie Hall. Maestro (Tony) Delgado’s preparation of the orchestra was superb. The performance earned a long, loud standing ovation. What a thrill for the orchestra to be on that stage,” MacLeod said.

Delgado said playing at Carnegie Hall will always be something special. 

“The history of the groups and people that have played there have set a really high bar. We were honoured and thrilled. We were the only youth orchestra playing at the event that wasn’t from the (United) States,” Delgado said. “Some of the other orchestra conductors were so impressed with our performances that they plan to visit us very soon to see what we do and how we reach such a high standard.” 

Several of the NBYO’s best musicians were offered scholarships after the Carnegie performance to continue their musical studies. 

“A group of our orchestra members were invited to attend a seminar in Chicago to participate in an orchestra, a recognition of the excellence that our kids have achieved. I am very happy with our efforts,” Delgado said.

A visit with royalty

MacLeod said when organizers started planning the 8th Hussars 175th Commemorative Concert, there was no indication Princess Anne would attend. Orchestra managers were floored when the Princess accepted an invitation to visit Sistema NB. The NBYO launched Sistema NB in 2009, modelled after the El Sistema program in Venezuela, with one location and 50 children. Today, Sistema NB boasts nine centres with more than 1,000 young musicians.

“Her Royal Highness toured the Sistema Centre (in Moncton), visiting classrooms and talking to our students. We were very proud to display our program, the largest youth music program in Canada, the largest employer of musical artists in Atlantic Canada,” MacLeod said. “It was a thrill for us to share this with her.”

MacLeod said the last two decades have been a tremendous success for the NBYO. In the early 2000s, the orchestra struggled to stay afloat on a $25,000 budget with two part-time staff.

“Fast forward to today. We have between 15 and 20 orchestras, 1,200 young people, a staff team of about 75 people, and our budget is more than $4.5 million. Last season, we performed almost 180 concerts and performance events and had more than 80,000 people attend. It’s been a tremendous change,” MacLeod said. “We never tire of seeing these young musicians grow and perform; it’s new and exciting every single day. To see a children’s orchestra with 100 kids that are eight years old playing great music – where do you see that? The kids are playing at such a high level it propels you to work harder.”  

Engaging children to see their potential is pushing NBYO staff and supporters to complete the 10,000 Children Campaign, aimed at doubling Sistema NB participation. The goal to reach 10,000 children over the life of the plan could be “game-changing in New Brunswick.”

“The campaign was to raise $12 million, and we have reached $11 million,” MacLeod said. “It’s more than about the money; it’s about the engagement, support and partnership with the wider community. You can’t achieve that without many friends and partners. That’s been overwhelming.”

New Brunswick’s musical gem has visitors from all over the world eager to learn from the example. 

“Waving the flag for our province as a place where there’s energy and innovation, creativity and achievement at the highest level. We are very pleased to be doing this. It’s a New Brunswick-made story,” MacLeod said. 

Delgado said this year’s orchestra has swelled to over 100 musicians, overflowing many theatre stages. He hinted the expanded orchestra is related to another big project for 2024-25. 

“I think this will be a landmark in our history… I hope people continue to support this orchestra. I think something special is happening in New Brunswick. The kids are so involved and dedicated, and it is paying off. We need to spread the word.”

NBYO performed for HRH Princess Anne. (Submitted)

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