Micheal Barnes has logged more than 15,000 miles in the past three months, all for the love of sharing his musical talents with eager audiences. The Oklahoma State University percussionist traveled to Japan in May as a member of the OSU Wind Ensemble.
Last month, the Lawton native was the only Oklahoman selected to be part of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States, a 120-member ensemble organized by Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute. Approximately 1,000 students auditioned for a spot in the orchestra.
Following two weeks of intense rehearsals in Purchase, N.Y., the orchestra performed concerts at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the New Mariinsky Concert Hall in St. Petersburg and London's Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms.
“I received an email about the National Youth Orchestra that really sparked my interest,” Barnes said upon his return from the orchestra's three-week tour. “I thought it would be a really great opportunity to meet other people and hone in on my orchestral skills. It was also exciting that Valery Gergiev would be conducting.”
Barnes spent seven months putting his audition package together, a videotape of orchestral excerpts, an interview, essay and letters of recommendation. He had to wait another four months before getting word that he had been chosen as a member of this orchestra's inaugural season.
“In February, I was performing at (percussionist) Colin Currie's master class when he was in Oklahoma City to perform with the orchestra,” Barnes said. “That was the day I found out I was accepted in the NYO. It was a very stressful day that ended with a really great relief.”
The orchestra's touring program was designed to be technically and musically challenging: Dimitri Shostakovich's “Symphony No. 10,” Sean Shepherd's “Magiya” and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra,” the latter featuring Joshua Bell as soloist.
“From the moment I heard the tuning note on the second day of rehearsals, I knew this was going to be a great orchestra,” Barnes said. “After doing a run through of the Shostakovich from beginning to end, I was very thankful that I was going to be a part of this orchestra.”
At the culmination of the rehearsal process, the orchestra had back-to-back concerts in Purchase, N.Y., and Washington, D.C. Barnes said both concerts were well received but the performance at the Kennedy Center program was particularly moving.
Gergiev is one of classical music's major musical talents, the conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg for 25 years, and, since 2007, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He's known for his passionate and driven performances of highly dramatic works.
“His conducting style was unlike anything I had ever seen,” Barnes recalled. “Because it was so loose, it was a little hard to follow at first. He never addressed technique because he expected everybody to be thoroughly prepared. He spent rehearsal time working on musicality which made us feel more respected. Gergiev also made us pay more attention to each other and listen to how we played together.”
While percussionists are expected to be able to perform on a wide variety of instruments, most focus on a single instrument during a symphonic work. For the Shostakovich Tenth, Barnes was assigned the cymbal part. He played three sets of crash cymbals and two suspended cymbals.
“There are so many moods in just that one piece,” Barnes said of the Shostakovich. “One of my favorite percussion instruments besides the marimba is the cymbals. I feel a lot of emotions when I play them because there are so many different colors possible.”
For Shepherd's “Magiya,” which translates as “magical” in Russian, Barnes played on multiple instruments, including maracas, ratchet, temple blocks, xylophone, snare drum and bass drum. The quick changes also necessitated lots of movement within the section.
“The NYO experience was really engaging even when I wasn't playing though,” Barnes said. “I didn't play on the Tchaikovsky so during rehearsals, I would sit in the audience to get a better idea of what the orchestra sounded like. That also allowed me to think more about how I might shape my playing within the context of the music.”
Russian audiences are passionate about orchestral music, particularly so when the programming features works by Russian composers. Not surprisingly, they were thrilled that the National Youth Orchestra's program featured Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and a Russian-inspired American work.
“We could tell the Russian audiences were very respectful and really enjoyed the music a lot,” Barnes said. “What was unusual though was that at the end of the concerts, everyone clapped in unison which was really bizarre. I also think we were the first American ensemble to play in the new Mariinksy Theatre which was very exciting.”
The concluding concert took place at London's Royal Albert Hall, the site of the annual BBC Proms. A two-month festival that features 75 concerts, the Proms have become some of Europe's most popular and well-attended concerts since their debut in 1895.
“People started lining up to buy standing room tickets at 6 a.m. the day of our concert,” Barnes recalled. “I was also amazed that they would stand during the entire concert. At the end, they were clapping, shouting and jumping. It was like a rock concert.”
You might think that after experiencing such emotional and musical highs that come from performing with a first-rate ensemble, Barnes might have experienced a letdown upon his return to the United States.
“The best thing for me was actually coming home,” Barnes said. “Having seen so many different cultures after performing in Japan, Russia and England, I realized when I got home just how much I love America and how we could integrate all these foreign cultures into our art form.
“I think I've definitely been motivated even more so than I was before the tour. This year, I'll perform with the OSU Wind Ensemble, the orchestra and the percussion ensemble. I'll also being playing the organ as a secondary instrument. I'm ready to work very, very diligently to win a full-time spot with a professional orchestra.”
While membership in the National Youth Orchestra is a one-time-only opportunity for American student musicians, Barnes said he's confident that he'll have many other experiences and lots more music to keep him busy in the years ahead, along with many treasured memories from the tour.
“I think my most memorable moment was during the Proms concert at the end of the Shostakovich symphony,” Barnes said wistfully. “There was one last, huge glorious crash and afterwards, I felt on top of the world. I even shed one manly tear. The memories and the things I learned from this experience I know I'll remember for a very, very long time. It was really a dream come true.”