The kids are all right, as NYO2 shows verve and promise

Sun Jul 16, 2023 at 1:49 pm
Joseph Young conducted NYO2 Saturday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Fadi Kheir

From young to even younger. Carnegie Hall’s Friday night concert by the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America was followed by Saturday’s performance from NYO2, the even younger youth orchestra (for 14-16 year-old musicians). Led by conductor Joseph Young in his Carnegie debut, with violinist Jennifer Koh as guest soloist, NYO2 showed its own impressive level of talent through music from Leonard Bernstein, Jean Sibelius and Sergei Prokofiev.

As with Friday, this was a selection of enduringly enjoyable works with the kind of colors, rhythms, drama, and sonic power to inspire crowd-pleasing energy in young players. First, and first among equals, was Three Dance Episode from On The Town. With it, the verve and skill of these musicians was immediately on display.

One expects energy and excitement from young ensembles, but the dynamism of the playing was still notable, as was the punch and brilliance from the trumpets. There was some sense of effort, with the orchestra concentrating on the score and on Young’s clear, precise conducting—making sure they were getting things right. But one also heard how natural this modern, urban style was to these musicians. After a recent poor performance by a leading professional orchestra of Bernstein’s West Side Story dances, it was fascinating and rewarding to hear how at ease NYO2 was with the humor and dance rhythms of the “Times Square Ballet,” and the cheeky, extroverted attitude of the music as a whole. Wearing red hats to match the color of the pants of the orchestra’s uniform, the trumpet section was especially lively, with a smooth blend of sound.

The orchestra was even more fluid in Sibelius’ mighty Violin Concerto, playing with concentration and sensitivity. Koh’s playing, however, was odd, at times bizarre and even sloppy. She seemed cut off, musically, from the orchestra, communicating ruminatively only with herself.

Jennifer Koh was the soloist in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto Saturday night. Photo: Fadi Kheir

She played through all the notes, mostly, but there was no coherent direction, and she seemed to be turning everything into a puzzle, like someone speaking in anagrams. There was no connection between one phase and another, and a sluggish, soporific feeling reigned throughout, In passages without the solo part, the sudden rise in energy and sense of purpose from the orchestral playing was remarkable.

There were technical problems too. Many violin soloists tune slightly sharp to stand out from the orchestra. This is usually subtle, but Koh’s tuning was so extreme it was obtrusive and unpleasant. In the finale, her articulation grew increasingly sloppy and she couldn’t match the orchestra’s tempo. NYO2 did its best, but this was a major disappointment.

After intermission, the orchestra opened the Selections from Romeo and Juliet with a terrifically loud introduction to “Montague and Capulet.” The sheer volume of sound, and hearing it both increase and fade, was physically thrilling.

The overall performance was terrific. The selections that Young put together were a fine choice, well balanced between light and dark, succinct, and laying out a straight line through the narrative. Inside the music, the orchestra’s playing grew musically deeper and richer with each passing measure.

The brass flagged a bit at times, but this slow surge of expression had some superb stretches. Though the strings didn’t have a lush corporate sound, intonation and articulation were excellent. Even more, the musicality and sense of meaning in the “Balcony Scene” and “The Death of Juliet” were lovely and moving, while the “Death of Tybalt” had a gripping edge to it. The final moments were impressively complex and subtle, confusing to many in the audience but rewarding close listening.

As a farewell—NYO is heading out on tour—Young led two encores; a rousing and raucous piece of modern unnamed theatrical music, and, because their first stop is the Dominican Republic, a vivacious merengue. It was music to “walk you off the floor,” as the saying goes, and not only did the orchestra dig into it, but they roused the crowd when two of the string players got up to dance a little merengue on stage.

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