National Youth Orchestra shines in Berlioz and Tan Dun premiere

Sun Jul 12, 2015 at 1:44 pm
Chares Dutoit conducts the National Youth Orchestra of the United States Saturday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

Chares Dutoit conducts the National Youth Orchestra of the United States Saturday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

The National Youth Orchestra of the United States gave a concert that was not short on drama Saturday night at Carnegie Hall before heading off on a 7-city tour of China.

The program touched on the natural and the mythic with a fair bit of majesty, resonantly delivered by the 114-piece assemblage. The members of the orchestra, who were dressed in black blouses or jackets and ties with matching, bright red pants, are all between 16 and 19 years of age and hail from 37 different states. Twenty-five of their roster are of Chinese descent – as is the featured soloist, pianist Yundi – providing a cultural link to the tour and to the highlight of the program, a work written for them by the famed Chinese composer Tan Dun.

The mythic was intoned by Berlioz’s 1830 epic Symphonie fantastique, a musical hallucination of murder and damnation, which filled the second half of the program. The contingent of cellos and basses sounded wonderful, their well-articulated lines bouncing through the room – and in fact, the room sounded great as well, as the music erupted like flames licking the white and gold proscenium arch of the Perelman Stage. The familiar strains and offset chimes of the fifth and final movement had conductor Charles Dutoit very nearly dancing at his podium while moving the iterations of the theme – soft, playful, imposing, angular – across the orchestra.

The Chongquing-born Yundi was the clear star of the show, and fans swarmed the hall’s cafe after the concert to buy CDs and have them autographed. Dressed in black pants and black tails, he gave a show-stopping performance of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. Yundi played with apt showy finesse and a wonderful flair for the dynamic and the minutiae, as in the unaccompanied, upper voicings at the end of the first movement and the lonely notes dotted through the second. The full orchestra sounded rich and lush, which should not be a surprise – at least some of the young players are just a matter of years from entering the finest orchestras.

The program opened with Tan Dun’s Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds, which had received its official premiere the previous evening at a National Youth Orchestra concert at Purchase Collage in Westchester County.

Commissioned by the orchestra and Carnegie Hall to write the piece, Tan (who was present for the concert in red pants and black jacket) began thinking about “the wonder of nature and a dream of the future,” according to the program notes. In developing the piece, he scored bird calls and then recorded them on a variety of traditional Chinese instruments. He then loaded those recordings onto a battery of cell phones, creating a small, digital orchestra with which he could work. Those cell phones were interspersed among audience members, turning the concert hall into a cyber-aviary that didn’t die down for a lengthy 30 seconds or so after the initial string waverings and horn statement. The phone-track faded and, soon after, the orchestra did as well, only to return in a majestic, descending brass line with a full complement of strings.

The 15-minute piece raced through settings without feeling rushed, often returning to the initial birdsong motif, either in the strings or the phones. A particularly effective strum-and-slap percussion section from the strings was pushed by the propulsive pounding of the timpani. The piece ended with another repetition of the descending theme sung by the orchestra as a chant while they alternately whispered, snapped and whistled.

The stream of Saturday night’s concert can be accessed here.!/charles-dutoit-yundi-tan-dun-beethoven-berlioz

The program will be presented in Beijing on Wednesday, with concerts in Shanghai, Suzhou, Xi-an, Shenzhen and Guangzhou before the end of the month. Details can be found at

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