Irene Lee performs with NYO

Ashley Lee, A&E Editor

When Yo-Yo Ma smoothly bowed his way through yet another solo on the radio, then 5-year-old pianist Irene Lee was instantly intrigued by the cello. She began by perfecting her musical skills in Northwood’s VAPA program for several years and performed with the prestigious National Youth Orchestra (NYO) this summer.

Beginning in Philharmonic Orchestra as a freshman, Lee appreciated the passion Instrumental MusicDirector Ben Case brought to each class. She recalled that his love for music inspired her to feel the same way, so she believes in the importance of art programs at school.

“Arts programs are continuously being cut in order to pay for other core subjects’ supplies, but the fact that we still have the ability to play music in a school setting is pretty special,” Lee said. “It’s hard to find the brand of dedication that our VAPA teachers devote to maintaining the successful program, so I’m thankful that I’ve been given the opportunity to be a part of it.”

Although she thrived in orchestra at school, Lee looked for more opportunities to perform with other cellists with the same drive for music. It was Lee’s consistent practice habits that led to where she is today, including her recent opportunity to perform with NYO at Carnegie Hall.

NYO is a summer program run by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute with a residency at a college in New York. Students must go through
a highly selective application process with recommendation letters and a personal essay in addition to the audition video with excerpts and a solo. This year, cellists from the entire country competed for 11 spots.

“The program’s inherent prestige and the thought that I’d be able to play with musicians just as addicted to their instruments as I am made NYO an incredibly attractive opportunity,” Lee said.

The program consisted of a busy schedule with several 90-minute blocks of rehearsals every day in addition to faculty or jazz concerts the students attended. Performing with NYO and using her free time to rehearse with fellow cellists allowed Lee to grow as a cellist and realize what the pandemic had taken away.

“Meeting everyone in New York brought me out of a slump I fell into due to COVID-19; I was able to remember what it was like being on stage with my fellow musicians,” Lee said. “It’s a sensation that transcends the material world—impossible to describe but also tangible, and I know everyone felt it when we recorded Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 because we were all crying at the end.”

Although she doesn’t know where she’ll be in the future, Lee knows that she won’t be quitting cello anytime soon. Whether it be through community service or her studies at college, music will continue to be a prominent part of her life.

“After a dozen years of living and breathing cello, I can’t imagine my life without music in it. I guess you could say music is my heartbeat.”