National Youth Orchestra of the USA at Carnegie Hall

I was at Carnegie Hall last night to hear the first performance in their “home hall” of this year’s version of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.  David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony and the Sydney (Australia) Symphony, conducted an all-teen ensemble in music by Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Samuel Adams, and Modest Mussorgsky.  Robertson’s brother-in-law, violin virtuoso Gil Shaham, was soloist in the Britten concerto.

Last year was the first for this ensemble, but they didn’t play in New York City because of summer construction projects at Carnegie.  All the press reports last year were very positive about the quality of the group, and those reports were all confirmed last night.  These enthusiastic youngster played at a professional level.  While there were occasional signs of caution, on the whole the interpretations seemed appropriate for the music.  More importantly, the performances had distinctive personalities.  These young musicians were not playing by rote; they were throwing themselves into the music.

The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story were an audacious choice.  This music is rhythmically intricate, and many of the solo passages take the players to extremes under very exposed circumstances.  Playing this music really well is quite an accomplishment.  Robertson brought out the swing of some of the music, and the orchestra was with him every step of the way.

I have to confess that the Britten Violin Concerto is not one of my favorites, and I think there are good reasons why it has not really entered the active concert repertory, although many violinists – including Shaham – are working hard to promote it.  The structure – a moderate first movement, brief scherzo, then lengthy slow passacaglia, all linked – taxes the listener with its unbroken span of more than half an hour, and it is not exactly packed with memorable melodic material.  Perhaps the most effective part is the final few minutes, which can easily catch up the listener in an emotional experience, as one member of the orchestra commented in remarks from the stage.  Certainly Shaham does his best with it, and the orchestra seemed totally engrossed.

After intermission, we had the newly-commissioned “Radial Play” by Samuel Adams (son of John Adams, the San Francisco-based composer who has emerged as one of the most frequently played living American composers).  Is Adams a devotee of the “spectral music” crowd?  It seemed so with this piece, a short exercise in orchestral color that struck me as singularly lacking in tunes or thematic development.  That said, it was not too long to outstay its welcome, and it put the orchestra through their paces in terms of dynamic contrasts and color.

Finally, on the listed program, Maurice Ravel’s orchestra of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition presented an excellent show-case for the talents of this young orchestra, including numerous solo trumpet passages, the big saxophone solo in “The Old Castle,” and many other passages for wind and percussion soloists.  The program list of orchestral personnel was alphabetical within sections, so one could not know the names of the soloists, but they were uniformly excellent.  The solo trumpet cracked on one note during the exposed passages, but just one, and that is almost par for the course – I’ve heard the same from professional orchestras.  The one soloist who can be identified, Alto Saxophone player Chad Lilley, was excellent in his big solo.  Robertson adhered to moderate tempi, which took a bit of the excitement out of some of the faster “pictures,” but he built magnificent momentum in the finale, The Great Gate at Kiev, and they really raised the roof.  I especially enjoyed the vigor with which one of the percussionists had the suspended bar that produces the church bell effect in the final moments!

Encores: a brief but effective suite of selections from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and an audience sing-along with America the Beautiful, both very well done.

Now, my only adverse comment: Who made the decision to dress these people in bright red pants?  I thought that was silly and infantilizing.  They play at a professional level and should be dressed as professionals.  I wouldn’t insist on formal wear for a youth orchestra, but appropriate dress would reinforce their professional status.  They were also all wearing white & red converse sneakers, as were Robertson and Shaham.  The significance of this escapes me….

I hope there will be a Carnegie Hall appearance by the NYOUSA next summer.  I’d love to hear them again.

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