National Youth Orchestra of USA delivers refinement and virtuosity

Sun Aug 04, 2019 at 1:23 pm
Isabel Leonard performed Berlioz with Antonio Pappano conducting the NYO-USA Saturday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Summer for classical music means venerable festivals in the cooler environs of the countryside, but over the last few summers the most reliable concert event of the season has been found at Carnegie Hall. Saturday night, this was repeated with another concert from the exceptional National Youth Orchestra-USA.

The primary difference between this ensemble and NYO2, which played Tuesday, is age: NYO-USA is for 16-19 year old musicians while NYO2 covers 14-17 year olds. With age usually comes experience and more advanced musicianship, and so where NYO2 is a superbly talented youth orchestra, NYO-USA is an excellent orchestra on any terms made up of not-yet-adults.

The conductor for this year’s group is Sir Antonio Pappano. He led them in Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été—with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard—and Richard Strauss’ sprawling Eine Alpensinfonie.

Each piece challenges musicianship, and NYO-USA responding to that by, as the kids say, crushing it. (Do they still say that?) The Strauss, heard after intermission, demands virtuosity and stamina, while Berlioz demands refinement.

And these young musicians delivered refinement with aplomb. One was struck all evening with how assured was their playing and how alert the musicians were to their own parts and also to what was happening around them.

Pappano’s leadership, with three weeks of preparation, undoubtedly had much to do with the orchestra’s responsive, sensitive accompaniment to Leonard, and their skill and musicality in Strauss’ extended tone-poem. But during the performance, one had the strong impression that, while he was cueing entrances and monitoring dynamics, he was mainly letting this confident, talented ensemble play.

Leonard’s flowery mezzo was an excellent instrument for Berlioz’s song cycle, a vivid complex color on top of the sensual timbres flowing from the orchestra. Flow was the key word, each song a stream of music with Leonard’s vocal lines rippling through the instruments and then returned back to her. There was a chamber music type intimacy going on.

The loveliness of Leonard’s voice, always rounded off, even in the most prominent passages, as in “Le spectre de la rose,” was matched by the sound from the orchestra. Excellent balances brought the details of Berlioz’s orchestration to life, like the uncanny sound of horn, clarinet, and bassoon playing in unison. Their precise, controlled dynamic range opened up space for Leonard to sing quietly, reaching out far enough into the audience to entice them to bring their listening in close.

After those subtleties, Strauss’ explicit scene setting showed what the musicians could do with high energy, complex traffic. Balances were just as fine as in the first half, and the opening narrative of “Nacht,” “Sonnenaufgang,” and “Der Anstieg” was deep and atmospheric.

The creamy, shining strings and pastel woodwinds were prominent in the first half of the concert, for the second half one thrilled to the superb brass playing. Each section shone as a unit, and the mix of high and low instruments was exceptional, not only dynamically but in matching attacks and articulations—their powerful musicality was one of the high points of the performance.

For showcase concerts like this, the orchestra always has an encore in their back pocket. With the fervent response from the audience, this was compulsory Saturday night. And it was the highest point of the evening, an exceptionally tender and gorgeous “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations by Elgar. Pappano’s slow tempo gave these young musicians the room to make the music float on air.

One Response to “National Youth Orchestra of USA delivers refinement and virtuosity”

  1. Posted Aug 04, 2019 at 3:36 pm by Leslie

    Saw this concert at Ozawa Hall Thursday night. I could only listen on WQXR, Saturday night.

    The reviewer is right on!

    This concert was not to be missed.

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