Conductor: David Robertson
Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Britten: Violin Concerto, Op. 15 - Gil Shaham
Samuel Adams: Radial Play
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (Orch.: Maurice Ravel)
Carnegie Hall being a staunch supporter of music education, it only made sense that the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America it has created and nurtured since last year through the Weill Music Institute finally made its delayed debut on its legitimate home stage. Boasting of 120 among the top musicians between the ages of 16 and 19 from all corners of the US, this concert was the result of their two-week intensive training with seasoned professionals at Carnegie Hall before embarking on a coast-to-coast mini-tour.
The additional incentive of hearing Britten's Violin Concerto performed by former child prodigy Gil Shaham made the occasion simply too good to pass on, so my friend Ruth, whom I originally met at another youth orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall, joined me last Wednesday night in our highly perched seats among hordes of the musicians' wide-eyed yet rambunctious family and friends in a frigid Stern Auditorium, which even the heartening sight of a bunch of poised youngsters wearing black tops, red pants and white sneakers on the august stage could not warm up.
As for the music playing, it was unsurprisingly vivacious, unquestionably committed, and even remarkably nuanced. Under the dynamic baton of an equally white sneaker-clad David Robertson, their enthusiastic account of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story proved from the very beginning that regardless its somewhat unorthodox circumstances, this temporary orchestra has serious chops.
Britten's Violin Concerto is not an easy piece, technically or emotionally, but in the virtuosic hands of Gil Shaham, its unusual combination of rough sounds and lyrical phrases was totally riveting. The orchestra kept a respectful approach, assuredly handling the contrasting moods with force and finesse. Throughout the whole journey, the music remained unpredictable and somewhat mysterious, all the way to the openly melodic Passacaglia, which wrapped things up with a touch of haunting beauty.
Especially composed for the occasion and fittingly dedicated to the orchestra, Samuel Adams' Radial Play was five minutes of kaleidoscopic sounds appearing and disappearing, morphing in all kinds of ways and generally keeping the audience on their toes.
Although my main reason to be in the concert hall was Gil Shaham mastering the Britten concerto, I have to admit that the orchestra's performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition was one for the books, viscerally reminding us all why the kids playing their hearts out on the stage were considered the crème de la crème of the next generation of musicians. Confidently making Ravel's popular orchestral version their very own, they moved from one colorfully expressive picture to another without as much as blinking an eyelid.
The huge ovation they received was apparently much appreciated, so much so in fact that they treated us to not one, but two encores, never mind that they had already played for a couple of hours. The “Porgy and Bess” suite was another big hit, and Philip Rothman’s arrangement of “America the Beautiful” became a sentimental sing along that, as David Robertson pointed out, gave everybody in attendance a chance to sing at Carnegie Hall. And a lot of the dwindling audience did.