Whether it's a performance of contemporary music in South Beach or Wagner in the Berkshires, I realized long ago that young musicians can more than hold their own in a concert setting, especially when surrounded by 100 or so of their peers. But, there must have been something especially daunting about the prospect of performing at Carnegie Hall - arguably this country's greatest stage - for the teenaged members of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, who made their Carnegie debut on Tuesday night in a special summertime concert that was, to the best of my knowledge, without precedent at the 123-year old institution.
Founded last year by Carnegie's Weill Music Institute, the NYO-USA brings together young musicians from all across the country for summer of music making. Aspiring orchestra members apply online with a video audition and are selected based on a variety of factors, including their responses to questions such as: "How would you describe your instrument's personality?" Upon arrival in early July, the musicians - who must be non-conservatory students - undergo two weeks of training at SUNY Purchase with section leaders from top orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony and The Cleveland Orchestra. Last year, the NYO-USA toured with conductor Valery Gergiev to London, Moscow, and St. Petersburg; this year, they are traveling across the U.S. with St. Louis Symphony music director David Robertson.
Taking the stage Tuesday night in bright-red pants and red, white and blue Cons, the NYO-USA kicked things off with Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, evoking memories of another youth orchestra who performed on this stage a few years ago. Despite some wobbles in the brass and winds, the kids gave an electric performance of this jazzy score, showing some real swagger in the strings and shouting "Mambo" like they were the NY Phil; no doubt Robertson clued them in that the Phil gave the world premiere on this same stage in 1960.
Gil Shaham then joined the orchestra for Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, one of the unsung masterpieces of the genre. Written in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Britten's score plumbs dark emotions that can be unsettling and difficult to grasp. But, as horn player Leah Meyer eloquently told us from the stage beforehand, Gil's expressive playing during rehearsals had a profound impact on the young musicians' approach to this unfamiliar music.
"We might just be a bunch of teenagers," Meyer said, "but we hold as much raw emotion as we would at any age, and in any time."
Next up was a short contemporary work by Bay Area composer Samuel Adams called Radial Play, commissioned by the Weill Institute for the occasion. The title refers to a series of central pitches around which the music orbits - like the spokes on a wheel - with some of the same creeping intensity and rich sonorities that mark the music of Samuel's father, John Adams.
The concert ended on a familiar note with Mussorgsky/Ravel's Pictures at an Exhibition. It was far from a perfect performance - Pictures has lots of exposed solos that make it one of the trickier orchestral warhorses - but if nothing else, it gave the audience a reason to explode in cheers after The Great Gate of Kiev, with it's pealing bells and huge cymbal crashes.
After an extended standing ovation, the NYO-USA showed their youthful stamina by performing a pair encores. George Gerswhin’s Porgy and Bess was a perfect blend of seriousness and apple pie, highlighted by a whistling rendition of "I Got Plenty of Nothing." They ended the night with a lush, rousing rendition of America the Beautiful, during which Robertson encouraged the audience to sing along. "Tonight," Robertson told us with his ebullient charm, "you are all making your Carnegie Hall debuts!"
With all of the recent gloom and doom predicting the death of classical music, seeing these wide-eyed kids in their red pants and striped Cons on the stage of Carnegie Hall made it impossible not to feel optimistic about the future of this music. Fortunately, elder American musicians such as Shaham and Robertson - who will be traveling with the NYO-USA on their cross-country tour - know how crucial it is to have some skin in the game. Even if it is of the canvas variety.
Upcoming dates on the NYO-USA tour below; more pics on the photo page.
Jul 24National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America
Seiji Ozawa Hall 8 PM
Aug 4Carnegie Hall PresentsNational Youth Orchestra of the United States of America
The Music Center’s Walt Disney Concert Hall 7:30 PM
- Learn More