NYO-USA & NYO2: Celebrating the future at Carnegie Hall with youth, artistry and energy

United StatesUnited States Various: Gil Shaham (violin), National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Jennifer Koh (violin), NYO2 / Joseph Young (conductor). Carnegie Hall, New York, 14 and 15.7.2023. (RP)

Gil Shaham (violin) with NYO-USA © Chris Lee

National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA)
Valerie Coleman –
Giants of Light (world premiere, Carnegie Hall commission)
Barber – Violin Concerto, Op.14
Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Bernstein –
Three Dance Episodes from On the Town
Sibelius – Violin Concerto, Op.47
Prokofiev – Selections from Romeo and Juliet (1936, 1946)

Carnegie Hall is celebrating the tenth anniversary of its world-class youth orchestras – National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA) and NYO2. On consecutive hot, steamy July evenings, the vaunted venue was filled with superb musicianship as well as unbounded energy in two super concerts.

In the past decade, more than a thousand teenagers have participated in one of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute’s youth ensembles. In addition to NYO-USA (ages 16-19) and NYO2 (14-17), NYO Jazz brings together some of America’s finest jazz instrumentalists (16-19). Over several weeks each summer, the musicians train with faculty drawn from America’s top orchestras before performing in Carnegie Hall and then embarking on world tours.

In the first concert, Sir Andrew Davis led NYO-USA in works by Valerie Coleman, Barber and Berlioz. Coleman’s Giants of Light, which Carnegie Hall commissioned to commemorate NYO-USA’s tenth anniversary, is a seven-minute exploration in sound of light’s ability to illuminate a path for all walks of life and provide a sense of safety within every space in which it shines.

In her new work, Coleman traces one particular journey, that of the ‘giants to be’ who came to New York to participate in NYO-USA. The young musicians brought virtuosity and high spirits to Coleman’s brilliantly orchestrated amalgam of folk, jazz and classical, which culminated in a hymn of hope for this new generation and their stewardship of humanity and nature.

Wearing black tie and sneakers (the latter are standard concert attire for the NYO-USA), Gil Shaham was the soloist in Barber’s Violin Concerto. The soaring, singing lines laden with warmth and feeling in the concerto’s first movement, which Shaham played with panache, were magical. In the second movement, his tone bloomed effortlessly above the shimmering accompaniment of the NYO-USA’s strings and woodwinds. He dazzled in the incessant perpetual motion of the final movement. For an encore, Shaham jazzed it up with Scott Wheeler’s ‘Isolation Rag’, composed for the violinist in the early days of the covid shutdown.

In the works by Coleman and Barber, the NYO-USA had many moments to shine as soloists, in sections and as an ensemble, but in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, the young artists truly came into their own. Davis, a smiling, avuncular presence on the podium, instilled scale and finesse. The orchestra, however, outdid him in providing the energy and drama. A fluffed entrance or some rambunctious playing was something to celebrate: these players were experiencing the macabre delights of the Symphonie fantastique with every note they played.

The audience jumped to their feet after the diabolic finale and were rewarded the finale from Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber as an encore. If anything, it was an even more magnificent finish than the final chords of the Berlioz, and one last opportunity for the NYO-USA’s fine horn section to shine.

The following evening, Joseph Young, who was making his Carnegie Hall debut, led the NYO2 in Bernstein, Sibelius and Prokofiev. He has been NYO2’s resident conductor since 2018, and in that capacity has prepared the young musicians for their concerts and tours under the baton of other conductors. As the guest conductor this season, Young not only got to lead the orchestra in its Carnegie Hall concert, but also on its first-ever international tour to the Dominican Republic.

The evening got off to a swinging start with Three Dance Episodes from Bernstein’s On the Town. Young is not only a commanding presence on the podium, but he can swing, as well as crouch low to get the players’ attention when he wants things really soft. Trumpeters in red hats played with vibrancy and style, while there were impressive solos turns from the trombones and clarinet sections.

Jennifer Koh (violin), Joseph Young (conductor) and NYO2 © Fadi Kheir

Jennifer Koh was the soloist in Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Her hair might have been shocking pink, but her playing was calm and majestic. From her first entrance above shimmering muted strings, Koh’s spinning sound seemed to be suspended in midair. Her interplay with a solo clarinet in the orchestra had the air of an intimate conversation. In the second movement, there was a grandeur to her sound that was at one with the refined playing of the woodwinds. The entire third movement with its boisterous melodies and giddy rhythms, expertly played on the tympani, ended in a burst of brilliance.

The final work on the program was Young’s personal compilation of selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. If ever an orchestra was at one with the youthful passions and emotions of the young lovers, it was the NYO2 in this performance. The strings and woodwinds coaxed melodies from their instruments that ached with emotion. One of the most exciting moments came when Young sliced the air with both arms eliciting thunderous sounds from the tympani. And if a blurred note could occasionally be heard from the brass, it only added to the dramatic urgency of their terrific playing.

There were two encores, the first of which was unannounced but a crowd-pleaser, only to be topped by a lively merengue which had two orchestra members dancing on the stage and Puerto Rican and Mexican flags held high by audience members. Encouraged to clap by Young, the audience joined in this wondrous celebration of so much talent and such promise.

Rick Perdian

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