The Violin Channel recently sat down with Amy Rhodes, director of Ensemble Connect at Carnegie Hall.
Tell us about Ensemble Connect. When was it founded? What have been some of its highlights over the years?
Ensemble Connect was the brainchild of Carnegie Hall’s Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson and launched in January 2007. Ensemble Connect is based at Carnegie Hall and is a partnership program with The Juilliard School and the New York City Department of Education. It is a 2-year post-graduate fellowship program for extraordinary young professional classical instrumentalists who are also passionate and curious about ways to integrate education, community engagement, and entrepreneurship into their performing lives. We now have 135 alumni who are leading careers that combine many of the elements of the program, impacting communities through their music-making.
What is the overall vocation of the ensemble and program?
Ensemble Connect gives fellows the opportunity for hands-on experiences with a wide variety of activities. Fellows perform chamber music concerts at Carnegie Hall, Juilliard, and other venues; they are each partnered with a New York City public school and bring their artistry into classrooms 25 days of each year; they do interactive concerts for school and community audiences; they go to Skidmore College twice a year for a residency; and underlying all of this work is a rigorous professional development program which helps them think more broadly about what their careers can look like. During the application and audition process, we are looking for high-level performers who are open, curious, flexible, and who are willing to be taken out of their comfort zones to experiment and try things in a different way.
What have some of your Ensemble Connect alumni gone on to do with their careers?
We have 135 alumni who are all doing very different things. Some have created their own non-profit organizations, festivals, and ensembles; some have joined prestigious ensembles around the world; some have taken more of a teaching artist route and are teaching in schools; some are teaching at a college level; and many have created careers that combine several of these things together. Decoda — a chamber music collective exclusively made up of Ensemble Connect alumni — is the largest project that has come out of Ensemble Connect.
There are too many wonderful projects founded by alumni to name, but I’ll share three from string alums that demonstrate some of the breadth. Violinist Rebecca Anderson co-founded VOTESart, a non-partisan organization that aims to increase voter registration and participation in the United States and also to create opportunities for musicians to become civically engaged in their local communities. Violist Nathan Schram founded Musicambia, an organization that brings music learning and ensemble performance to prisons in the United States. Scrag Mountain Music co-founded by double bassist Evan Premo, is located in rural Vermont and seeks to create a space accessible to all where artists and the community engage and enrich each other.
Dec 7 will be your first concert back in-person at Carnegie Hall since March 2020. How are your fellows feeling right now?
There is an immense amount of excitement, of course, at finally being able to perform at Carnegie Hall. They have been rehearsing up in the Resnick Education Wing at Carnegie Hall, their home base, and finally after almost a year and a half of working together, they are able to perform for Ensemble Connect’s subscription audience. In addition to excitement, I’m sure there is a certain amount of nervous energy surrounding this concert, but most of all, gratitude is what they are all feeling. Gratitude to be back in-person with each other and to have the opportunity to share this program with an audience in New York City.
Can you talk us through the repertoire they will perform tomorrow?
As fellows, they each submit repertoire requests for performance. In preparation for this season, we broadened that to ask them to work together to submit complete program proposals for their two Weill Recital Hall concerts. What you will be hearing on December 7th is an iteration of one of those programs. They feel a strong sense of ownership and connection to each of the works they will be performing and will be sharing some of those thoughts with the audience at the concert.
The Coleridge-Taylor Nonet is a special piece for this group of fellows. Last May, when COVID-19 restrictions were starting to ease at least a little bit, they were able to rehearse and film an arrangement for this group’s instrumentation of one movement of the Nonet. On December 7, they will be performing the original instrumentation of the piece in full, but in addition to being a wonderful piece that isn’t as known as it should be, it continues to represent for them that feeling of coming together for literally the first time as a full ensemble.
What other activities and initiatives do the ensemble and its members have planned for the new year?
Fellows are quite busy with performances, teaching, and professional development. A highlight for the second half of the year is developing two Up Close concerts — intimate shows in the Resnick Education Wing’s Weill Music Room that reimagine the concert experience — one in collaboration with Rebecca Fischer and Anthony Hawley of The Afield and the other in collaboration with composer Julia Wolfe. As part of professional development, fellows will also begin to develop ideas for an entrepreneurship project and also to begin to craft a personal vision and mission statement.
How were you able to adapt the program during the pandemic and keep it running?
Adapting Ensemble Connect was a huge challenge. Ensemble Connect at its core is about connecting — with audiences, with students, with people. And the assumption has always been that the connections happen in person. In addition to that core challenge, we also had a situation where we had an entirely new group of fellows starting the program last season.
My colleague Deanna Kennett and I are really proud of what was able to happen last year and are grateful to this group of fellows for their energy, their creativity, and honestly, for their patience. We were, and still are, all figuring out this new world together.
Practically speaking, we moved everything online, as everyone did, but we did it with the underlying question of how we can push the envelope and maintain the Ensemble Connect-ness of our activities, even virtually. The fellows created three online performances each of their own spaces — and collaborated with really creative video editor/directors as well as composer Reena Esmail, dance artist Wendell Gray II, and visual artist Kevork Mourad on each of the shows and experimented with the idea of creating performances that can only live online.
The fellows also collaborated remotely with each other to create interactive performance activity videos for their partner schools. We created a Vimeo library accessible to all of our partner schools with the idea that these videos could help our partner teachers engage students remotely through music. We were able to do two residencies with Skidmore College completely remotely and ultimately were able to reach more schools and students in the greater Saratoga Springs, NY area than we ever had been able to in person.
The fellows learned a lot last season even if those things were different than they had originally expected. They were still able to bond and form a tight-knit group that is being reinforced now that we are in person.
What is some common feedback you hear from graduates of your program?
We stay very closely in touch with our alumni. We engage many of them to serve as mentors to our current fellows, to lead professional development sessions, and to join us in performance when we need to fill out our instrumentation. We hear from many of our alumni how their time in Ensemble Connect absolutely changed their lives. They are able to conceive of their careers differently which in many instances has changed the trajectory of their lives. And the close relationships they formed with their colleagues and with the broader alumni community have been so important to their creative, professional, and personal lives.
In terms of concrete skills, developing interactive performances — and by extension, the ability to connect with all types of audiences — and crafting personal vision and mission statements are the two that most commonly come up as ones that have had a huge impact on the career development of alumni.
For a long time, we have wanted to share Ensemble Connect’s training resources more broadly, and last summer we launched The Connected Musician, an online resource for musicians who are interested in developing deeper connections with audiences. Our fellows and alumni, in addition to wonderful colleagues and advisors in the field, have been very involved in the process of developing the content and the first modules will mirror the trajectory of the professional development that our current fellows participate in and also areas of the program that alumni have found most impactful.
What do you feel are the most valuable career skills and experiences you hope each of your musicians takes away from the fellowship?
During their time in Ensemble Connect, we ask our fellows to do a number of things that are quite difficult at the outset but over time, we see that they take these values with them as alumni. We ask them to remember what it’s like to be a beginner, to take risks and frequently go outside their comfort zones, to have a learner mindset, to frame the music they love in a way that is relevant to the human experience, to take ownership over their own experiences and their own learning, and as the wonderful Claire Chase once said in a professional development session, to be fueled by one’s joy.
One of the best parts of my job is having the opportunity to watch the development of these incredible young artists during the two years that they are with us and beyond. Our goal is that they leave the program with the skills and tools they need to create their own path and that is exactly what we are seeing. Each person is so different, but the common thread is that they come out of the program bolder, more courageous, and more confident in what they have to offer and that impacts how they interact with music, with people, and with the world.