National Youth Orchestra of USA brings energy, excitement to well-balanced program

Sat Jul 15, 2023 at 2:03 pm
Andrew Davis conducted the National Youth Orchestra of the UnIted States of America Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Marking its tenth year, the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America is as fine a group as ever. In a way, that’s no surprise, as this orchestra is an all-star outfit with young musicians drawn from the whole country. But there is substantial turnover each year as the kids grow older (the orchestra is for ages 16-19), and despite the obvious sheer talent to be found, the musicians  and a new conductor have to bring together a touring program from scratch.

Friday night in Carnegie Hall, they offered a well-selected one: a concert overture by Valerie Coleman, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto—played by Gil Shaham—and the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz. With Andrew Davis conducting, this year’s group of teenagers put in another sensational performance.

The essential, and perhaps only, difference between these musicians and a professional orchestra is experience; the nuances and complexities of inner life and musicianship that can only be produced though time. That boils down to dramatic tension, expressive subtlety, and the instrumental ability to convey them. What the orchestra did show was considerable technique, attention to detail, and an inexorable and surging energy. 

This was excitingly present and compelling from the first notes of Coleman’s Giants of Light. Commissioned by Carnegie Hall for this orchestra, this was the world-premiere performance. Coleman is an heir to the great mid-20th century American orchestral music, and Giant of Light opens with the classic, inspiring sound of wide open chords, gleaming textures, and a bounding, striding feeling. In the middle of this short work there was a passage that balanced that optimistic fanfare and mood with a more ambiguous lyricism, lovely and bittersweet, with short phrases from woodwinds and brass. Tender playing from the orchestra gave this a rich sound. This is a great American music style that exists outside of polemics and intellectual fashions and speaks to the possibilities and frustrations of this country, and Coleman is showing herself as its contemporary standard-bearer.

Gil Shaham performed Barber’s Violin Concerto with Andrew Davis and the NYOUSA Friday night. Photo: Chris Lee

Barber’s Violin Concerto is far on the romantic edge of this style. It is packed with sonic and emotional beauty, demanding deep expression from the soloists in its first two movements, and extraordinary technique in the finale. Shaham was marvelous in the solo part, playing with an understated expression but a focus on the line and dynamics that let the music speak for itself. His playing in the finale was fabulous, the music rushing past but every note still clearly articulated and put into the context of all the others, the kind of dexterity that’s so skillful that it makes everything light and fluid.

The orchestra followed both soloist and conductor with quickness and sympathy, with excellent woodwind playing and exacting attention to dynamics. The gorgeous clarinet line at the end of the first movement was particularly fine.

For an encore, Shaham played a succinct charming piece that composer Scott Wheeler wrote and emailed to him in April, 2020: The Isolation Rag.

After intermission, Symphonie fantastique was another impressive performance. Though the overall ensemble sound of course does not have the blend and amplitude of the best professional orchestras, individual voices and sections were terrific, with a skillful and focussed overall string sound, crisp articulation, and tight rhythms.

Much of the first movement was driving, though a little superficial, as if Berlioz’s story didn’t quite resonate with these young players. Starting with the second movement, “A Ball,” one felt the sense of narrative meaning emerging within the ensemble and spreading out to the audience (which was keenly attentive and responsive all night). The large-scale sense of this still outrageous piece began to flow. The third movement pastoral was gorgeous; Davis placed the antiphonal oboe in the balcony, and the sense of space enhanced the sense of loneliness at the end.

That movement, and the intense finale, underscored the instrumental talent in the orchestra. The English horn player (not detailed in the program), had a lovely tone and phrasing, and the brass playing in the finale, mixing trumpets and cornets, was brilliant and powerful—the horn section impressed with the crackling timbre they push out of their muted instruments. The playing was loud yet suitable to the music, pushing the experience to an extreme, exciting edge.

The audience responded with near ecstasy, and of course needed an encore, which was a vivacious, confident finale from Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. It would be good to hear more Hindemith in New York, at least from these stellar young players.

NYO2 plays Bernstein, Sibelius, and Prokofiev, with violinist Jennifer Koh and conductor Joseph Young, 8 p.m. Saturday.

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