National Youth Orchestra’s impressive Carnegie stand shows the kids are alright

July 24, 2014
By George Grella
Gil Shaham performed Britten's Violin Concerto wh conductor David Robertson and the National Youth Orchestra of the USA Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Gil Shaham performed Britten’s Violin Concerto with conductor David Robertson and the National Youth Orchestra of the USA Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

The first thought that comes to mind seeing over 100 teenagers dressed in red pants, blue blazers and white shirts on the stage of Carnegie Hall Tuesday night, was: “How can anyone think classical music is dead?”

There’s never enough money—there never has been—but money is neither alive nor musical. These kids were there to play a concert of classical music, and a good number of them, if not all, will continue playing classical music through their lives. Q.E.D.

The young musicians make up the grandly titled National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, on their second tour and making their first visit to Carnegie. There are 120 musicians, ages 16 – 19, chosen by audition, and coming from thirty-five states. Conducted by David Robertson and joined by violinist Gil Shaham, the orchestra played music from Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Samuel Adams and Modest Mussorgsky. It was an impressive, rousing and moving event.

As an ensemble, the NYO would not have been out of place in the company of the fine orchestras that performed at Carnegie during the final Spring For Music festival in May: they play with verve, clarity, and, mostly, exactitude of intonation (some exposed brass solos proved less than ideal). Yet otherwise, the pieces—the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Britten’s Violin Concerto, Adams’ Radial Play and Pictures at an Exhibition in Ravel’s orchestration—posed few technical challenges for the young players.

The first moments were inauspicious, though. After the orchestra gave an ovation first to their concertmaster and then to Robertson (who wore the same white sneakers the kids had, along with his black tails), the Prologue to the West Side Story dances began anxiously, the rhythms tight and the accents falling like sledgehammers, not slicing like switchblades. But once the double-time section hit, the kids realized that they were having fun, loosened up and played with easy concentration and joy.

Britten’s Violin Concerto is an utter masterpiece, and arguably the composer’s finest composition. The narrative, such as it is, is Britten’s response to the Spanish Civil War, and there are some Spanish phrases that stitch the three movements together. But ultimately, this is simply an astonishingly beautiful and powerful array of notes and rhythms.

Shaham and colleagues delivered an extraordinary performance (he also plays it on a strong recent release, “1930s Violin Concertos,” on Canary Classics). Plumbing deeply inside the music—the second movement cadenza stopped time—Shaham’s solo work was equaled by the refined and responsive accompaniment. In a Britten year that Robertson staked out with the incredible Peter Grimes from the St. Louis Symphony last November, this was the last moving word.

Radial Play by Samuel Adams is a Carnegie Hall commission for the orchestra that emphasizes dazzling, constantly shifting orchestral colors. His genes seem to carry an instinctive attraction for rising harmonies and plangent sonorities—John Adams is his father—but Samuel has his own sound, with scoring that owes more to Stravinsky than Sibelius. Radial Play, heard in its New York premiere, culminates with a tremendously satisfying, jazzy, dominant-seventh to tonic repeated cadence at the bottom of kaleidoscopic activity. It doesn’t have a lot to say, but it flies by, knows when to quit, and makes a stimulating visit.

Pictures at an Exhibition was confident, and often beautiful in the National Youth Orchestra performance. From the start of the concert, the orchestra showed that they could play loudly, and at the end they showed that they could also produce a rich, textured sound that expressed their pleasure and excitement in performing. The brass solos posed a challenge, but the section as a whole played with brilliance and steady intonation. The strings—reshuffled after the first half—were impressive, with exact unanimity of pitch, and the winds had a fine blend and balance. The “Catacombs” movement was particularly gorgeous. Robertson—whom the musicians clearly adored—took a flowing, lean approach, molding a sensation of expressive dignity out of the accumulation of modest details.

At the close, it was a powerfully moving experience to witness these young musicians so committed to playing great music. After an ecstatic ovation, the two encores brought a bit of an anticlimax: a drastically shortened orchestral suite from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and an overripe arrangement of America The Beautiful, during which Robertson encouraged the audience to sing along. These were easily forgotten when the rest stuck so strongly in memory.

The program will be repeated at Tanglewood 8 p.m. Thursday.

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