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Grammy-award winner Hannah K. Adler ’25 is at the forefront of modern classical music.
In 2020, Adler and many other classically-trained musicians between the ages of 12 and 22 — as members of the New York Youth Symphony (NYYS) — recorded an album that made history at the recent 65th Grammy Awards. Their album, which only included pieces written by Black female composers, won Best Orchestral Performance. Adler, who sat as the principal second violinist on these pieces, had no idea this pandemic project would be such a success.
Adler initially began playing the violin at the age of four and attended several music camps prior to obtaining the principal seat for the NYYS. A native of western Massachusetts, Adler would commute two and a half hours every Sunday to New York City for rehearsals during her junior and senior years of high school. Despite this, Adler found the commute to be relatively manageable. “My grandpa sort of lives outside the city, so sometimes I would stay over Saturday night to make it all work. It was a lot of commitment from my parents, which was really nice,” Adler said.
When the NYYS’s spring concert was canceled in 2020 due to Covid-19, the violinist confessed that “at that point, I don’t think on anyone’s mind was like ‘oh, well what is my symphony going to do next,’ there’s much bigger things to think about.” However, it turned out that the administration and conductor of the symphony, Michael Repper, had been planning something all along for the musicians to stay connected with the orchestra during this time of isolation.
The NYYS ended up taking on a project whose success would be realized in 2023. 14-time Grammy Award winner and producer Judith Sherman organized a recording session with the symphony, and Adler was thrilled.
“It was a period of four days, I think the string players were only there for three of the four,” Adler said. “To totally mitigate Covid … we had to split up into groups, so we recorded separately. We never actually heard them.”
Adler recalled not knowing what the piece would sound like with her violin part until she had heard the final recording. She called Repper and the producers’ music engineering work “some serious magic.”
Adler also found the choice of songs on the album to be extremely unique. Made up of pieces from three Black, female composers — Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery, and Valerie Coleman — the album represents a wide historical range of modern classical music from the 1930s to the present.
Typical programming for orchestral albums includes works from composers whose pieces have been around for centuries, such as Beethoven or Mozart. Adler and the NYYS were excited to provide a fresh perspective to the world of classical music.
“People like Jessie Montgomery who are obviously still living and living through the same things that we are all living through, especially in the past five years, when she writes something that is responding to something we’ve all lived through, there’s way more that goes into thinking about how to perform it and how to digest it and understand it as more than an art form, rather than a bourgeoisie activity that rich people go pay money to see,” Adler said.
Adler wanted to highlight the importance of this album and the work of the NYYS. As a tuition-free organization, the symphony often premiers new and upcoming composers' scores through their program, First Music. Although the NYYS was not the first to perform the compositions by Price, Montgomery, and Coleman, they were the first to have this opportunity to record an album of these pieces and have it produced by Judith Sherman.
Upon finishing the recording, Adler recalls her conductor being confident that the album would be Grammy-Award-winning material. NYYS’s album was special compared to other nominated orchestras’ albums in the category that Adler described as being dominated by “massive, really professional orchestras.” These groups like the Berlin Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic performed more traditional programs, according to Adler. She believes the NYYS stood out because their album included new, modern works from a diverse set of composers.
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