Meet the 11-Year-Old Girls Whose Music Wowed the Philharmonic

Posted June 22, 2018 5:34 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — It was the kind of debut most musicians only dream of: a world-class orchestra, tens of thousands of listeners.

At its outdoor parks concerts last week, the New York Philharmonic performed works by two 11-year-old girls, Camryn Cowan and Jordan Millar — newcomers to the world of composing. They won over the crowds, who gave standing ovations. Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times gave them an effusive review.

“Audiences were clearly blown away and delightfully surprised,” said Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s president and chief executive.

Where does a composer go from here? Cowan and Millar — two students from Brooklyn who are part of the Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers initiative — followed up on their victorious tour of New York City by, well, returning to class.

“I think I have more things ahead of me,” Cowan said in a joint interview at David Geffen Hall, the Philharmonic’s home at Lincoln Center. “So I hope that I will continue doing what I love, which is making music.”

Both girls speak with clarity and command; there was no kids-say-the-darndest-things cuteness as they navigated topics like inspiration, writer’s block and gender disparity in classical music.

They were confident in explaining their works, originally written for a Harlem Renaissance-theme program earlier this year. Cowan, who was 10 at the time, said that her “Harlem Shake” was an exercise in layering, but with saxophone improvisations that nodded to the neighborhood’s past.

Millar’s “Boogie Down Uptown” conjures stepping out of the subway onto the streets of Harlem for the first time, with musical textures inspired by the shadowy movement of Aaron Douglas paintings. (For all this seriousness, they are still children: Millar said her fascination with Douglas’ art comes from her favorite Disney movie, “The Princess and the Frog,” which borrows its aesthetic from his paintings.)

I mentioned to Millar that her piece also sounded a lot like Leonard Bernstein’s music; she said, no offense intended, that she wasn’t familiar. But even if Bernstein didn’t directly inspire her melodies, he laid the groundwork for her involvement with the Philharmonic.

Jon Deak — a composer, the Philharmonic’s longtime associate principal bassist and the founder of its Very Young Composers initiative — said that the program was inspired by Bernstein and his televised Young People’s Concerts. It is also in the lineage of José Antonio Abreu, who died earlier this year, and his widely influential El Sistema in Venezuela.

The axiom of Very Young Composers, Deak said, is that all children are creative. “People ask whether I’ve found the next little Mozart, and I say yes, I’ve found dozens of them,” he said. “They’re all over the place. We just need to listen to them.”

Participants in the program come from about 15 partner schools in New York. (Cowan goes to PS 11 and Millar is a student at Poly Prep Country Day School.) They start from scratch, beginning with rhythmic exercises and learning music theory in a roundabout way, using their own words to describe intervals before knowing what they are or how they’re typically used. Eventually, they graduate to writing complex scores that they workshop with one another and try out at Young People’s Concerts.

In the process, Deak said, the students have to become leaders: “Look at a 10-year-old who comes up to a bassoonist’s kneecaps and says ‘That’s too fast’ or ‘There’s something wrong with that note.’ They have to defend their pieces, and boy, do they do it.”

Indeed, Cowan and Millar did exactly that in rehearsal with the Philharmonic.

“I was a little scared, because I felt like they already knew what they were doing,” Cowan said. “I told them, ‘Can you make this a little faster?’ But overall, I think the piece was played perfectly.”

In the Very Young Composers classroom, the environment is broadly supportive as the students share their latest works. Still, Deak said, “some kids write pieces that have legs, that really take off.” These two girls, he added, “wrote the hit tunes.”

Outside the program, Cowan is a violinist and pianist; Millar plays piano and clarinet, and has sung with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. At home, though, neither listens to much classical music.

Cowan, for example, prefers Bob Marley, Beyoncé and Cardi B. For Millar, it’s more about the ’90s: TLC and Destiny’s Child. Asked whether they were interested in incorporating those styles into their own music, Millar said that she has already thought about it.

“I will definitely try it at some point,” she said, “but so far I’ve done it in Garage Band, just messing around.”

The hardest thing, Millar said, is simply coming up with the right idea. “I remember sitting at the piano, not knowing what to write,” she said with the exasperation of a seasoned artist.

Statistically speaking, they face an uphill battle in classical music, not only as people of color, but also as women in a field that remains challenging for female composers. But Millar said that their opportunity to have their pieces performed by the Philharmonic is a sign of change — and, she added, “society needs change.”

Cowan interjected, as if she’d already given this topic a lot of thought.

“Women are sometimes put down in orchestras, or they’re not noticed enough for their great talent,” she said, “so I think that me being onstage is a good change. Other people, other kids or adults — maybe they don’t have this same opportunity. I think we can be inspiring for them.”