National Youth Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of American presented its 2015 concert last night at Carnegie Hall, and lived up to the high standard set for the past two years.  I’ve been attending these concerts since they began in 2013 and have continued to be amazed by what can be accomplished in two weeks of rehearsals by an assembly of talented youngsters who are not music conservatory students.  The results meet the high standards of professional orchestras.  One can concentrate on listening to the music, confident that the performers are up to the task.

And the task here was a very challenging program: a newly-commissioned concert-opener by Tan Dun, Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with a leading young professional pianist – Yundi – as soloist, and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, one of the most challenging symphonies in the standard orchestral repertory, full of exposed solo passages for every section of the orchestra.  Charles Dutoit, a veteran conductor, led spirited performances that made no compromise to the youth of the performers.  And it was a long program — perhaps stretched out a bit by too lengthy an intermission — running from 8 pm to 10:30, lengthened even more by an encore – the final movement from L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2 by Bizet.

One could single out various soloists for praise, but not by name, since the program lists the musicians alphabetically by section, presumably because the roster had to be submitted in advance of the rehearsals and final assignments undoubtedly emerged during the rehearsal process.  I was particularly struck by the calm virtuosity of the horn section, especially in the Beethoven concerto, the solo oboes (they seem to have switched off principal roles between numbers) in the Berlioz, and the depth and tight ensemble of the strings throughout.  But there was plenty of glory to go around.

If there is anything to criticize, it is the choice of the Beethoven concerto, which calls for a standard classical-size orchestra, as a result of which many of the wind and percussion players, as well as the excellent harpists, were excluded from a significant part of the program. As long as one is assembling such an ensemble, it would make sense to me to put together a program that requires the entire ensemble throughout.  Also, why would one devote all but 5 minutes (the Tan Dun piece) to music from the early 19th century?  Young performers are fearless in confronting modern music, as they showed quite well with Tan Dun, and so one could easily put together a program calling on the full group of more recent music.  As well, the absence of American music was noticeable and unfortunate in light of the touring schedule.

Yundi is a spectacular pianist, but on this occasion I was a bit critical of one aspect of his playing.  Fast scale passages tended to be rushed into a blur, at times getting away from the orchestra.  I fault Yundi for this, not Dutoit, who was doing a fine job of moving the orchestra along to keep up.  But Beethoven needs majesty, not just excitement.  That said, the slow middle movement was exquisitely done, and I marveled at the ability of this large aggregation of youngsters to play with quiet subtlety when that was called for.

Altogether an excellent evening, and the Chinese audiences they will be meeting over the next few weeks are in for a treat.  Bravo to Carnegie Hall for instigating and supporting this project!

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