United States Falla, Montero, Stravinsky: Gabriela Montero (piano), NYO2 / Carlos Miguel Prieto (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 30.7.2019. (RP)
Falla – The Three-Cornered Hat (abridged)
Montero – Piano Concerto No.1, ‘Latin’
Stravinsky – Pétrouchka (1947)
As he handed me a program, the usher said, ‘There’s a lot of kids in there’. Turning to face the Carnegie Hall stage, I saw what he meant. It was full of teens, ages14 to 17, in white polo shorts and scarlet pants, the concert attire of NYO2. Sprinkled about were a few somewhat older players dressed in black, all Fellows of the New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy. The energy level was already high, but we are talking about an orchestra of teenagers under the baton of Carlos Miguel Prieto, Musical America’s 2019 Conductor of the Year. By the end of the concert people were literally dancing in the aisles.
NYO2 is a free orchestra program that comes together alongside NYO-USA and NYO Jazz each summer for intensive training and performance opportunities. NYO2 has a particular focus on recruiting musicians from communities underrepresented in classical music. This year’s players came from Maine, North Dakota, Hawaii and everywhere in between. If this level of talent results from tossing the net far and wide, musically the US is in fine shape.
As an ensemble, NYO2 was top notch, and the gutsy string playing in Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat was particularly impressive. The horns had a clear, burnished sound that would be the envy of many orchestras. Trumpets, trombones and tuba combined brashness with style, commanding attention whenever they played. Throughout the concert, the solo woodwinds seemed to counterbalance the overall exuberance with playing that was just as spirited but the epitome of poise and refinement.
The second work on the program was Gabriela Montero’s Piano Concerto No.1, ‘Latin’, which she composed in 2016. Montero describes the concerto as merging European formalism with the informality of Latin America’s rich, rhythmical identity. Alternating between the joyful and the macabre, the concerto is dominated by a forward propulsion, of which the piano part is the impetus. This translated into a work that at times captured the chaos of a traffic jam, and at others was languid and nostalgic with beguiling harmonies and melodies. Montero dazzled with her technique and the intensity with which she played.
Montero returned to the stage carrying a Venezuelan flag to the sight of others waving throughout the hall. For an encore, she improvised on ‘Happy Birthday’, spinning the tune into a bravura set of variations worthy of Chopin. At one point she started to vamp, and then the legendary Cuban jazz musician Paquito D’Rivera walked out on stage with his clarinet. What started out as a concert by American kids had turned into a celebration of the Americas, and there was more to come.
At the intermission, I overheard the young violinist who had been the concertmaster say, ‘This was the best first half ever!’ I had nothing to compare it to, but it was terrific. The players were shuffled about for the second half, and he was now sitting towards the back of the second violins. A young woman took his place as concert master and led the orchestra on an equally amazing ride that started with Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka. The clarinet and piano solos dazzled in a performance notable for its clarity and grace, with the wit and excitement of Stravinsky’s score flowing as a matter of course. For all the energy in the hall, however, the audience was remarkably still, and the ending came off brilliantly.
Everyone was primed for more, and Prieto and the NYO2 launched into Lucho Bermúdez’s ‘Colombia Tierra Querida’. Prieto had invited the audience to dance if the spirit moved them, and at the first explosion of the percussion introduction to the piece, people jumped to their feet. To pump up the audience even more, the orchestra segued into Gabriela Ortiz’s ‘Antrópolis’. In ‘Antrópolis’, composed in 2018, Ortiz reimagines the sounds of Mexican dance halls. With the clapping, cheering and dancing, musical details got lost but the energy hit new levels
The performance was just as exciting visually as it was musically. All eyes were focused on the percussionists as the Latin rhythms enveloped the hall. Entire sections stood for their solo turns, none playing with more abandon and enthusiasm than the trombones, who hailed from Texas, Arizona and Illinois. The cellists astounded as they continued to play with both feet off the ground, a sight you don’t see every day.
In his brief remarks to the audience, Prieto said that making music with NYO2 will ‘inspire me for a long, long time’. He and this remarkable band of musicians should tour the entire USA and then the rest of the world. They challenge every conceivable stereotype about classical music and the kids who spend their time practicing to perform it at the highest level. What’s more, they spread hope and joy.