Here’s something to harp on: Olivia Lee chosen for the National Youth Orchestra

Junior joins ensemble as sole harpist
Here’s something to harp on: Olivia Lee chosen for the National Youth Orchestra

When she’s not spending her spare time on the squash court or practicing taekwondo, Olivia Lee ’25 can be found with a harp in hand, serenading those around her. In February, Olivia was selected to join the National Youth Orchestra (NYO), an ensemble of young musicians who will embark on a tour of South America this summer. Olivia took up the harp at age 8 after encouragement from her mom, a musician herself. After brief experiences with the piano and the violin, Olivia was naturally drawn to the harp, she said.

Olivia says she values the time she spends practicing. “I could tell right from the start that whenever I practiced, I truly found myself enjoying it. I found a point where I could really let myself go and express myself.”

For Olivia, performing for an engaged audience is the most rewarding part of the process.

“My favorite aspect is doing live performances and performing in front of an audience, I think it really conveys my raw emotions directly. Music is another form of language.”

To further her skills, Olivia auditioned for NYO, a month-long summer program which begins with two weeks spent at Purchase College in New York City and is followed by a tour. The orchestra’s initial performances are held in Carnegie Hall.

In order to apply, the applicant must learn required excerpts in addition to a solo piece. Recording each piece requires up to six minutes of intense focus and flawless execution until it is ready to be submitted. Despite the pressure, Olivia loved filming the audition videos, she said.

“I had a lot of fun with it. Especially since they were short orchestral excerpts from all of my favorite pieces, I really enjoyed working on them and playing them along with recordings.”

She said she especially enjoyed playing a few of her favorite pieces.

“There was this one excerpt I really wanted to learn from a piece called ‘Tzigane’ where the harp cadenza is a solo piece. It’s a very technically difficult cadenza, so it was rewarding when I got a successful recording of it. It’s also the piece my mom always played when I was younger.”

Olivia expressed gratitude to be able to highlight various aspects of her identity, including her musical abilities, throughout the application process.

“What’s cool about NYO is that they look not only at your musical ability, but also your personality. So, you submit a personal essay and a video essay which include some fun prompts.”

She received her acceptance to the program about a month later on February 9, and is excited to play some of her favorite music with the orchestra this summer, she said.

“It’s such an honor to be part of NYO. I am most excited for the pieces we are playing this year. We’re playing ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ one of my favorite pieces. We’re also going to be playing ‘Scheherazade.’”

Krysten Keches, Olivia’s private harp teacher for almost ten years, acknowledged the significance of Olivia’s acceptance, she said.

“The nationwide application process is highly competitive, and the orchestra typically chooses only one or two harpists each year. This year, Olivia was the only harpist selected.” Ms. Keches explained that Olivia will gain invaluable experience with the NYO.

“Olivia will have the chance to perform alongside some of the best young classical musicians in the country, and she’ll also work with world-renowned professional artists, including conductor Marin Alsop and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.” The reasons for Olivia’s success are broader than simply natural talent, Ms. Keches said.

“She has a natural affinity for the harp, but her creativity, self- motivation, and absolute dedication to her instrument are what set her apart. I’m incredibly proud of her.”

Doug Zhang ’25 is a current member of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and is a former member of the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra where he has played alongside Olivia. Olivia’s dedication to her instrument earned her the spot in NYO, Doug said.

“Olivia received the honor because she is super dedicated to harp. I know she practices a lot every day, and for music, consistency is key, so you understand the phrasing, articulation, and dynamics.”

After performing in Carnegie Hall in August, Olivia, with the rest of the NYO, will tour South America for the rest of the month, performing in cities such as Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo. The ensemble will play for thousands of audience members, while gaining experience in the field of classical music.

Ellora Roy ’25 is thrilled for what Olivia will experience with the NYO, she said.

“I’m excited for her to participate in an orchestra she is so excited about, and to tour a new place.” For Diba Demir ’25, Olivia’s presence on stage will serve her well, she said.

“I’ve listened to Olivia play with an orchestra, and it’s amazing to see how graceful and professional she is on stage. I’m really excited to see how her unique character as a performer shines.”

Diba also sees Olivia’s talent as a product of her passion, she said. “It’s also thrilling to see how her dedication and love for music presented her with this opportunity because she truly is the best at what she does.”

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