Students from CAPA, Bethel Park to embark on tour with National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America

Matthew Santoni
| Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Two Pittsburgh-area musicians will join an all-student orchestra being organized by New York City's famed Carnegie Hall for its inaugural season, touring Washington, London, Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Ahmer'e Blackman, a senior bass player at the Pittsburgh School for Creative and Performing Arts, Downtown, known as CAPA, and Mark Debski, a senior oboe player at Bethel Park High School, were told this month that they are among 120 musicians nationwide chosen for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.

Both students were sitting at computers in their respective classes earlier this month, nervously checking their emails for a response to the 10-minute audition tapes and application packets they'd spent months to complete.

“I was supposed to be working on a paper, but I was so nervous I just kept checking my email,” said Debski, 18. “When I saw (the acceptance email) I said, ‘I got in!' and of course nobody else knew what I was so excited about.”

“I got the email in the middle of class. ... It looked like just a bunch of words, and I was just trying to find the words, ‘you've been accepted,' ” said Blackman, 17, who grew up in Highland Park and now lives in Wilmerding.

In June, they will attend two weeks of rehearsals with some of the best professional musicians from orchestras around the country. The sessions will be at Purchase College, part of the State University of New York in Westchester County.

They'll play under Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, and be accompanied by violinist Joshua Bell, a Grammy Award winner, in performances at Purchase and then at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

They will finish with an international tour with stops in Moscow, St. Petersburg and London that will be formally announced later this year.

“There are national youth orchestras in many, many countries, but we've never had one here,” said Douglas Beck, director of artist training programs at Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute. “The tour is an opportunity for these kids to be ambassadors for their country and for their hometowns.”

About 2,500 students from around the country filled out written applications, and 1,000 sent in their audition videos, Beck said. The final group represents the best of 42 states, he said.

Trying out for the NYO took plenty of work for each, with essays and 10 minutes of videotaped performance. Blackman said he spent a year reviewing the pieces for the audition, and he played for more than two hours on-camera before he got 10 minutes he was sure were perfect.

For the past three years, both have been members of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra, whose leaders convinced many of the 95 members to try out for the national group.

Blackman started playing piano in the first grade, then the bass in third grade, he said. Three years ago, he picked up the cello.

“What a lot of younger students don't understand is that the hours and hours of practice really are what pay off,” Blackman said. “It feels pretty good to get in, but it makes me wonder what I did any better than everyone else. ... I'd just encourage them to try again next year.”

Debski said he started playing music in the fourth grade, briefly practicing the clarinet before switching to oboe.

“I'm just overjoyed to have this opportunity to make beautiful music with very talented people,” Debski said.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or

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