When violinist Hannah Adler ’21 found out on February 5 that she was a Grammy winner, she was in her dorm room at Harvard. Such is the life of a college sophomore.
Surrounded by the color of the Crimson in Cambridge, Mass., but not by the red carpet in Los Angeles. No fancy viewing party. Just watching the awards show in her room when the New York Youth Symphony (NYYS), with Hannah as a violinist, became the first youth orchestra to win a Grammy, in the category of "Best Orchestral Performance."
The award-winning performance was of works composed by Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery, and Valerie Coleman. The NYYS, whose students range in age from 12 to 22, was one of five nominees, beating out two of the most prestigious philharmonics at the 65th Grammy Awards.
“It was a very long journey,” Hannah said. In more ways than one.
The album was made in the fall of 2020 during the pandemic when Hannah was still at Loomis. The instrument sections had to record in separate rooms in New York, so Hannah was with the strings. “As a string player I didn’t hear the wind players until much later,” Hannah said.
This is not the way an orchestra normally records a performance, but these were not normal times. Because of the risks of spreading COVID-19, the full orchestra could not safely play all together. After recording was complete, it took months to produce and engineer the album, but it was ready in time to be eligible for the 2023 Grammys. The album, which celebrates Black composers, was produced by Judith Sherman, who has won 14 Grammy Awards, including Classical Producer of the Year in 2023.
“Their amazing, young, energetic conductor, Mike Repper, said to the orchestra during the recording, ‘We are going to get a Grammy nomination,’ ” said Hannah’s mother Mary, the medical director at Loomis Chaffee. “He was so committed and excited, and the energy was there from the start. Actually getting the nomination was a wonderful surprise, though. Never thought they’d win as they were up against the Berlin Philharmonic and the L.A. Philharmonic. We watched the daytime ceremony and all screamed when the Grammy was announced.”
A long journey also can describe Hannah’s path to being part of that Grammy-winning team. She started playing violin at age 4. When she was a junior and senior at Loomis, she went to New York each Sunday to work with the NYYS. Those were long Sundays, with a violin lesson in the morning and a four-hour rehearsal with the NYYS in the afternoon. Twice a month, Hannah also had a masterclass for two hours between her lesson and the orchestra rehearsal.
“It was a long day, but it made her so happy that it was worth it,” Mary said. “There is another orchestra in Boston that she considered, but their rehearsals were on Saturdays, and she didn’t want to give up her LC sports.”
Hannah was on the cross country team in the fall, played junior varsity ice hockey in the winter, and played varsity tennis in the spring. As a senior, she was a cross country and tennis captain. Hannah also was involved with the music program at Loomis. Her brothers Matthew ‘18 and Samuel ‘15 also are Loomis graduates.
Hannah said the Grammy-winning work by the NYYS was especially gratifying because it spotlighted Black composers with the works of Price, Montgomery, and Coleman. Price (1887 to 1953) is regarded as the first Black woman to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Montgomery is an accomplished composer and violinist. Coleman is a distinguished composer and flutist.
Classical music now is not just Bach or Beethoven, Hannah said, and the “mixing of cultures and introducing different perspectives is incredible, a way to share and learn.”
She has learned much along the way.
“There are a lot of living composers that are writing incredible music, and the music is either in response to or pertains to current events or recent historical events that are of great importance to the world we are living in now,” she said.
Hannah also spoke about meeting composers before an orchestra performs their work.
“They are going to be talking to you and coaching you as to why they wrote the piece, how they want it to be played,” Hannah said. “I think that is one of the most rewarding things because it is about storytelling and thinking about how your music can be of impact. The pieces that are on the album are important that way. We feature two living composers and one that was not widely appreciated or performed. People have realized [Price’s] brilliance, and it’s cool to be a part of that.”
For this album, the orchestra members were only able to meet with Montgomery via Zoom, befitting the times.
“I think the Zoom call definitely gave me a sense of purpose with the album,” Hannah said. “Montgomery’s piece, ‘Soul Force,’ gets its name from a line in Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. The sheet music told us a lot. You can hear a sort of march in the opening section, including chains in the percussion section.
“Montgomery elaborated on the ideas of gathering voices together in the face of oppression. Listening to her tell us about the piece and the ideas woven through the music reminded me that we had the opportunity to bring her ideas to life, and hopefully being them to a wide audience.”
Hannah is an environmental science and public policy major at Harvard. She takes private lessons at Harvard, is part of the Chamber music program, and performs with the Brattle Street Chamber players, a string ensemble with no conductor.
Hannah has decided not to make playing the violin her career. She wants to keep it as a passion.
“I think I will always play, but turning something that you love into what you depend on for money is not for me,” she said.