Young players of NYO2 take summer vacation with Stravinsky at Carnegie

Wed Jul 31, 2019 at 2:25 pm
Carlos Miguel Prieto conducted NYO2 Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

For talented kids with access to resources and opportunities there’s no such thing as summer vacation—once school ends, some other major endeavor is underway.

Summer music camps are one of those, and the pinnacle of these has to be the National Youth Orchestra of the United States—both in its flagship NYO-USA configuration and its NYO2 ensemble, a summer training program for 14-17 year old musicians created by the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall. 

Like the NYO-USA, NYO2 delivers several performances under the baton of a major conductor. This season’s leader is Carlos Miguel Prieto, and Tuesday night NYO2 launched their summer with a concert at Carnegie.

The programs for these ensembles offer no concession to their youth: NYO2 (augmented with a handful of fellows from the New World Symphony), played one of the major works of the standard repertoire, Petrushka, and opened with Manuel De Falla’s ballet, The Three-Cornered Hat.

There were two immediate surprises: one was the gentle texture of the sound, substantial but soft and rounded where so many modern orchestras are bright and steely; the other was how subdued the musicians seemed. Youthful energy is a cliché with enough truth behind it to shape one’s expectations, even if the source of the energy might be anxiousness about performing.

But not too far into the first section of the piece, “The Neighbor’s Dance,” the strings have a bouncy, syncopated rhythm, and that gave the musicians a palpable burst of energy. Everything after that was sharper, livelier, with a real sense of music-making as fun. This was a colorful performance, with a touch of Andalusian lilt, that accumulated vitality as it went along. Soon one was no longer conscious that this was a youth orchestra, despite their uniform of red pants and white polo shirts—this was simply a good orchestra.

Gabriela Montero performed her Piano Concerto No. 1 “Latin” with NYO2 Tuesday night. Photo: Chris Lee

The centerpiece was pianist Gabriela Montero in her own 2016 Piano Concerto No. 1, “Latin.” Venezuelan by birth, she has the kind of international, peripatetic pedigree of the modern classical musician. The concerto showed her to be a sparkling, elegant pianist and a smooth and communicative composer.

The “Latin” concerto was a survey of her world, and American in the sense that she was following the path of Gershwin, using popular music as the material for classical form. Where Gershwin used jazz and blues, Montero had specifically Latin American music, mambos and folk material. The native music was balanced by a pianistic sensibility that came out of Rachmaninoff, full of fluid, articulated sixteenth-notes, intervallic runs, and expressive coordination between the hands.

The concerto was enjoyable but also a bit disappointing. Her opening idea was intriguing, a solo stretch of quiet chords with a subtle and sophisticated sense of dissonance and harmonic ambiguity. After that, the series of tunes and rhythms was well made, but took a different and less compelling direction.

Though Montero was impressive, one missed the orchestra. Their part never felt fully integrated with the soloist, sounding more like a big band backing an instrumentalist than part of a larger whole. The highlight of the concerto was the lovely Andante moderato in the middle, which gave the orchestra’s individual soloists a larger role.

The highlight of Montero’s performance was her encores. She returned to the stage waving the Venezuelan flag, thrilling the crowd which was full of a large number of her compatriots, all eager to celebrate eager to celebrate the culture of their beleaguered country.  She tried to elicit a tune from them for extemporization, but rejected a few traditional ideas for “Happy Birthday.” Though it smacked of some preparation, she spun this into a fine improvisation, turning it inside out and upside down in the manner of Bach, before finishing it off with a Beethovenian cadence.

She then brought out a surprise guest, the great Latin jazz musician Paquito D’Rivera, bringing his clarinet, and the two tossed off an exciting and jaunty improvisation.

The history of classical music is tracked through composers, but hearing this group play Petrushka had one considering how musicians have done so much to move music along in the 20th century. A demanding piece when it premiered in 1911, the ballet (in Stravinsky’s 1947 revision) sounded better Tuesday night than on many early recordings from storied ensembles.

This was a beautiful performance with an impressive ensemble sonority. NYO2’s sound had an unusual, Old World quality to it, full of earth tones and subtle balances between sections. It was also matched by their musicality, the feeling of meaning and drama the musicians produced. 

The common experience of Petrushka today is one of  dazzling orchestral colors, but Tuesday night it was the ballet’s drama that stood out. The playing was full of unfolding tension and there was a strong narrative to the scenic juxtapositions, along with a tremendous sense of anticipation at the very close.

Despite some fatigue in the trumpets at the end, all the solos passages were excellent, and Karina Wugang played the piano part with such dynamism and verve that Prieto had her come to the stage for an extra bow.

The evening’s Latin theme continued at the end—NYO2’s own encores were a couple of dance numbers that featured brass section solos and had the crowd literally dancing in the aisles.

The NYO-USA, with conductor Antonio Pappano and mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, plays Berlioz and Strauss in Carnegie Hall, 8 p.m. Saturday.

5 Responses to “Young players of NYO2 take summer vacation with Stravinsky at Carnegie”

  1. Posted Aug 01, 2019 at 2:19 pm by Gilda Tuttlebee

    Hi George,

    Regarding your generally positive review of Tuesday night’s concert, it pains me to read that you found Gabriela’s composition for piano and orchestra only “enjoyable” and, furthermore, “a bit disapponting.” But, oh well, we’re all entitled to our own opinions. I understand that.

    But regarding the improv encore on Happy Birthday… “it smacked of some preparation” … now THAT really bothers me and I can’t respect it. Seriously? You think she needed to prepare something? It had been YEARS now since I’d read anyone putting her real-time composition in doubt. Sure, it used to happen when she first “came out” at the urging of Martha Argerich. Reviewers understandably found it hard to comprehend. But she has shown over and over on all sorts of platforms that what she does is totally real-time composing and I have no doubt that you know this as well. I have to ask… why say that???

    Gilda Tuttlebee

  2. Posted Aug 03, 2019 at 1:23 pm by George Grella

    I say that because she asked for someone in the crowd to sing her a tune that she would used for improvisation. She turned down every option presented to her and then suggested “Happy Birthday” to the audience. So she set up a challenge then declined it. Strictly speaking, the result was not real-time composition but variation on a composed theme—it wasn’t free improvisation.

    I have been an improvising musician for 40 years, improvisers have to practice their art and I comprehend that there’s nothing invalid or questionable about preparing a basis of improvisation ahead of time, nor anything pejorative about suggesting that. Why do you find that bothersome?

  3. Posted Aug 04, 2019 at 9:29 am by George Hemesath

    I was the person who shouted out ‘Happy Birthday’ when Gabriela asked for a simple tune to improvise on. I can assure you that it was a random suggestion and not ‘set-up’ in any way.

  4. Posted Aug 05, 2019 at 10:37 am by George Grella

    Montero asked the audience “How about this?” and played the Happy Birthday tune, then started. She gave no indication that came from the audience, and if it did it was impossible to discern.

    This conversation points to a problem with improvisation in classical music. It used to be integrated into classical music-making, as it is in just about all other musics across the globe, but then was abandoned, ahistorically, for much of the 20th century. It is a normal thing that good musicians should do, and it requires practice and preparation, the same as all other kinds of music-making. That she chose a key in which to improvise is a specific detail of what preparation means.

    Her music-making was fine, as I clearly wrote. The process is relevant and, at least to me, important and fascinating. Seeking some sort of magical inspiration and making that a precious thing doesn’t have any musical meaning.

  5. Posted Aug 06, 2019 at 12:04 pm by Marcella

    Dear Mr Grella . How disappointed the young lady was that sang the theme from Tristan as she appeared when the artist proceed to play variations on a well trodden path rather than as you suggest play a Fantasia etc ..playing from the top of her head . Yes it took some turns but those turns were a little cliched. Eg 7 becomes 3 up a 4 down a 5 etc

    I guess this is the best we can hope for today ?

    To me with all the resurgence in classical improvisation as you suggest things can now be different and we can move to a place where the music will flow more naturally .

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