The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America made the first stop on its coast-to-coast 2014 tour last night at Tanglewood, and throughout the evening, the playing was of a surprisingly high caliber.
Founded in 2012 by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, the group also has the support of the National Endowment for the Arts. It selects a different conductor and soloist each year, the last being Valery Gergiev and Joshua Bell; this year it’s St. Louis SO music director David Robertson and violinist Gil Shaham. Each year it also commissions a new work, last year it was Sean Shepherd’s Magiya (Russian for magic), and this year Samuel Carl Adams’s (son of composer John) Radial Play. Its annual tours included Russia and London last year, the USA currently, and China in 2015.
This year’s orchestra of approximately 120 members hail from some 33 states plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico, with 24 members returning from last year, after repeating the audition.* The roster even includes orchestra librarian and personnel apprentices. Young people 16-19 who are chosen have two weeks of rehearsal, coaching, and training at SUNY-Purchase, where they give their first performance, followed by Carnegie Hall. Last year’s program was all-Russian, this year’s was broader in scope, striking me as a good selection from across the literature: warhorse; neglected; pops; and something brand-new, all offering appropriate challenges and learning experiences.
Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story was the opener. This was music that the players could easily get into, which they did, with finger-snapping and whistling as well as movement. It also suited the wardrobe designed by Fred Bernstein: black jackets; white shirts with charcoal ties and pin superimposing the flag on the continental US; red pants; and white custom Converse sneakers whose wide red side stripe ran parallel to the soles and below stars-and-stripes tongues. All lower elements were shared by conductor and soloist too, below their traditional white bowties and tails.
Next was the one work to which the young players must have had difficulty relating. One cannot readily warm up to Britten’s Violin Concerto. Written in 1939 by this avowed pacifist as the clouds of war were forming on the Eastern horizon, it is troubled and pessimistic, disturbed and distressed, sometimes revealing serious pain. Several extended solo moments are also meditative in an excruciating way. Less dramatically varied than the Bernstein, more of a piece, it is intensely demanding, and the musicians rose to its challenges. Shaham was stellar in communicating. The standing ovation suggested that the concerto can be understood and appreciated in spite of harshness and stress.
After intermission came Adams’s short piece, which he describes in the note as “a series of contrapuntal ‘objects’ [with] a center pitch around which the rest of the music orbits.” Radial Play struck me as an apt title, as play with sounds in a circular fashion with modern, tonal, and pleasant elements. The musicians seemed to have a good time. The concluding piece was Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, one of the more brilliant examples of orchestration in the repertoire, a chestnut of its genre and a superb choice, educational, with an immense variety of sounds building to the stunning climax.
At all times the playing was controlled, precise, crisp, and nuanced, with perfect ensemble. The garb did not relax performance standards. It was eminently clear that Robertson has excellent rapport with the musicians and that they respond to him by striving for perfection with obvious enthusiasm and pleasure, which he profusely returned. Shaham was also visibly impressed with their achievement. The concert was as rewarding for the listeners, some of whom obviously had connections with the musicians.
The program book listed the hometowns of each musician. Cellist Bihn Park of Haverford PA and alto saxophonist Chad Lilley of Olney MD spoke about the program. Chairs and principals rotate. The experience will be something these young women and men will long remember. Many will likely go to conservatory and have careers in music, while some will choose other majors and have day jobs in different fields, but probably will play and perform throughout their lives in community orchestras and chamber groups. In other words these youth are the future of classical music in America.
A shortened arrangement of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Suite and America the Beautiful, with the audience singing along were the encores. Next stop is Boone NC, and the tour concludes in Disney Hall in Los Angeles. The NYO calendar is here. Catch them if you can.
* Members of the orchestra from Massachusetts are: violinist Sharon Kim from Belmont, ‘cellist Evan Wood from Dover, Bassist Harrison Dilthey from North Adams, flutist Elizabeth Sperry of Chelmsford, bassoonist Reuben Stern of Needham, and hornist Leah Meyer of Belmont.