The New York Youth Symphony’s decision to remove a commissioned work from Sunday’s performance was not a decision taken lightly. It was a highly unusual step for us—one which was taken thoughtfully, but firmly, as soon as we learned the piece incorporated significant portions of music written by others that we determined were problematic for a student orchestra such as ours to be asked to perform without prior knowledge or discussion.
The first time the composer revealed the source of his music was on March 2, in response to our inquiry. We were told that of the three sources that he used, one is the Horst-Wessel-Lied, the anthem of the Nazi Party from 1930-1945, which is illegal in Germany and Austria. When asked to explain the context and meaning of the piece, which would justify his use of this source, he refused.
This was his obligation to our orchestra as a commissioned artist and particularly important given the fact he was working with students, ages 12-22. Had the composer revealed the sources of his piece and the context under which they were used upon submission of the final commission in September 2014, the piece and the notes could have served as an important teaching moment for our students. However, without this information, and given the lack of transparency and lack of parental consent to engage with this music, we could not continue to feature his work on the program.
Again, if the composer had been forthright with us from the start, this situation would not have transpired. He was chosen last spring for the commission from among a strong group of candidates by an impartial panel of seven composers and music educators. The new piece he created in response to receiving the commission received its first hearing when it was given to the orchestra to rehearse in December.
We believe deeply in a free creative process. But along with freedom comes responsibility, even more so when young people are involved. We continue to be committed to champion new young composers through our ground-breaking First Music composition program, which has commissioned over 137 composers since 1984. We are proud that First Music commission winners have been recognized by the Rome Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and Guggenheim Fellowship.
Our mission at the NYYS is to educate and inspire young musicians, composers, and conductors. We also encourage creativity within a culture of mutual respect and honesty. This situation, while unfortunate in so many ways, has taught us to remain true to our values as we serve the best interests of all our students.
All of us at the NYYS are deeply disappointed that this decision was necessary knowing how much time and effort the students put into preparing the piece for performance. We thank them for their wonderful contributions to making the NYYS such a special place, and we appreciate the ongoing interest in the success of our performers and the NYYS from all of our alumni, supporters, and the wider music community.