We’re Still Here! – A knock-out concert from Carnegie Hall’s Youth Ensembles

United StatesUnited States Live with Carnegie Hall – National Youth Ensembles: National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America / Carlos Miguel Prieto (conductor); NYO2 / Mei-Ann Chen (conductor); NYO Jazz / Sean Jones (bandleader and trumpet). Purchase College, Purchase, NY. Streamed on 24.7.2021 on Carnegie Hall’s YouTube channel. (RP)

Carlos Miguel Prieto conducting NYO USA © Chris Lee

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.6, ‘Pathétique’
Hindemith – Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Florence Price – Ethiopias Shadow in America
Quincy Jones – ‘Pleasingly Plump’
Neal Hefti – ‘Cute’
Ralph Peterson – ‘The Art of War’
Duke Ellington/Laura Rembert – ‘Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool’ (arr. Reginald Thomas)
John Clayton – ‘I Be Serious ’Bout Dem Blues’

Even if you think that you can’t watch another streamed performance, get to your favorite device ASAP for Live with Carnegie Hall’s knock-out concert with its National Youth Ensembles. I have heard the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America live in Carnegie Hall, but never caught NYO2 or NYO Jazz. This stream made me realize just what I’ve been missing.

Last summer, Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Ensemble experience was a totally virtual event, and digital was the only option when it came to performing. More than 110 teen musicians from 41 states across the US convened online for a two-week residency, attending private lessons, sectional classes and performances online. Digital tools such as Zoom and Google Classroom made that possible.

This year’s teenage musicians, as well as apprentice composers, orchestra managers and librarians, and their mentors gathered in person on the campus of Purchase College, State University of New York, which is located just north of New York City. Texas and California led the pack with over a third of the participants coming from the country’s two most populous states.

Carlos Miguel Prieto led the NYO USA in an exceptionally moving performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. The Mexican-born conductor is an inspirational figure on many levels, especially to the teenage musicians and their parents. He is not only a star conductor – Musical America honored him as its Conductor of the Year in 2019 – but a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School.

Beyond the music, much of the emotional wallop was due to the camera focusing so closely on the conductor and individual performers. Prieto, more than the players, displayed the intense feelings aroused by the music they were making. Closeups of soloists demonstrated the discipline and focus required to make such beautiful sounds.

NYO2 is open to even younger American instrumentalists, and it has a particular focus on recruiting musicians from communities underrepresented in classical music. The dynamic Mei-Ann Chen conducted this year’s orchestra in performances of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber and Florence Price’s Ethiopias Shadow in America. Chen was named Chief Conductor of recreation – Grosses Orchester Graz beginning in Autumn 2021, making her the first female Asian conductor to hold this position with an Austrian orchestra.

Mei-Ann Chen conducting NYO2 © Chris Lee

Chen is a dynamic presence on the podium, and the NYO2 orchestra channeled her energy and passion. In the bold, heroic finale of the Hindemith, the young musicians played their hearts out. The polished sound of the brass was thrilling. In Florence Price’s Ethiopias Shadow in America, it was the tender, more reflective passages that resonated so deeply. This award-winning work was composed in 1932 and only rediscovered in 2009.

Now in its fourth season, NYO Jazz is led by trumpeter Sean Jones, whose mantra is ‘I think the progression of the art form comes with people being allowed to be themselves in their rawest form with no compromise’. The NYO Jazz class of 2021 got the message and turned in electrifying performances – their virtuosity was jaw dropping. You had to pity the parents of trumpet players who spent lockdown practicing their ear-splitting riffs at home.

From the gentle swing of Quincy Jones’s ‘Pleasingly Plump’ to the wild lightning storm of solos in Ralph Peterson’s ‘The Art of War’, the young jazz masters were amazing. And America’s indigenous art form has evolved: did Duke Ellington ever imagine that ‘Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool’ would be played by two women, including NYO Jazz’s first ever violinist, necessitating an update of the work? For an encore, with Jones as lead soloist, they played Wycliffe Gordon’s ‘We’re still here’. Amen!

The players were called upon to introduce the works and talk about their experiences over the past 18 months. Band and orchestra musicians are social animals. Endless hours of practicing at home and driving your family crazy didn’t make up for the communal experience of rehearsing and performing with friends. It also caused some to evaluate just what role music played in their lives: was it a fun school activity or something more integral to one’s being? If they made the cut for any of the three ensembles, they probably knew the answer long before the pandemic hit.

All that was missing for these remarkable young musicians was the thrill of performing in Carnegie Hall and an international tour for the NYO USA. They shouldn’t fret too much about that, especially about performing in Carnegie Hall. Most of them are going to be on that stage sooner or later, and it is an incredible experience at any age.

Rick Perdian

To watch the concert, click here.

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