Tuesday, August 5, 2014

National Youth Orchestra in Spectacular Triumph at Disney Hall

National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, Carnegie Hall, New York
By Douglas Neslund

 “Ensemble” is a term used to describe a group of people performing together, but its more intimate meaning was made manifest courtesy of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute in the form of the 120-member National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America in their debut performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Ensemble, in French, means “together” and in the more original Latin, “all at the same time.” NYO brought new meaning to the term as they concluded an eight-concert, transcontinental tour. This ensemble could contrast favorably with more than a few professional orchestras.

David Robertson rehearsing with soloist Gil Shaham
Their conductor is (or was) David Robertson of Santa Monica, now in his ninth season as music director of the St. Louis Symphony and who recently added the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to his responsibilities. NYO and Maestro Robertson were a perfect paring. His enthusiasm for both the music and the kids required that he wear white running shoes (as did they) to sprint across the stage to the podium and once to take leave of his post to saunter away in dance. But lest that sound trite or “Hollywood” let it quickly be a metaphor for a man living in ecstasy, one shared with the large, grateful Disney Hall audience.

Maestro Robertson also created a repertoire that was a perfect rainbow from start to finish, designed probably to showcase the prodigious talents of his 16-19 year old high school players, but forming an arc beginning with Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and ending with the first encore of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

In the middle was one of the greater lesser-known gems of Benjamin Britten’s oeuvre, his Violin Concerto, Op. 15, with world-class soloist Gil Shaham taking partnering with orchestra to an even higher level, an absolute joy to experience. His music making through the extended cadenza was breath-stopping. 

Phrase-shaped deliciously delicate dynamics paired with precise attacks and releases were the rule throughout the evening.

Samuel Adams (b. 1985)
After intermission, a new work of only four minutes’ duration, commissioned for this AYO tour and dedicated to them by the composer, Samuel Carl Adams, who was in attendance and is the son of John Adams. Entitled “Radial Play,” the work’s foundation is texture, sound choirs competing with other sound choirs, instrumental intervals expanding and contracting within a scope of dynamics that explored the entire sonic range. This piece should form the kernel for a future major work. The 30-year old Oakland resident is obviously a composer to be noticed and followed.

The final piece in the two-hour-plus concert was Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The degree of achievement of this ensemble was revealed in exquisite detail and precision, as small orchestral elements are given their opportunities throughout, often in great exposure. Woodwinds only slightly bettered the brass choir in finesse with some fantastic solo playing. One can name just one, as soloists were not credited in the programme, but since Chad Lilley of Maryland was the only alto saxophonist, it was he who "sang" the bewitching Mussorgsky solo with gorgeous tone that easily filled Disney Hall.

One would have to guess the name of players performing exquisite trumpet and flute solos– flawlessly and utterly musically.

There are places in the several scores that would challenge the world’s most professional players, but no worries with the NYO/USA.

The impression deepens when one realizes this group gathered for just two weeks to prepare the tour! Los Angeles may have benefitted from being the final concert on the tour. As such, the concert was also the “grand finale” for seniors, as graduates are not permitted to continue the following summer. Half the orchestra stood when asked if this was their denouement. Most of the seniors played in the AYO’s inaugural season featuring a tour to Russia. Sixteen of the 2014 orchestra are Californians. Seventeen professional orchestra principals formed the faculty training these young people, including two from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra: Thomas Hooten, principal trumpet, and Whitney Crockett, principal bassoon. Extensive auditions are predicate to finding the very best talent. Competition to wear the red peg-leg jeans, white sneakers and blue jackets must be excruciatingly tough.

San Gabriel's own Nathan Kirchhoff and his bassoon
Next year’s ensemble will tour China under the baton of Charles Dutoit. One could wish for another Los Angeles appearance next summer as a jump-off performance. Word of mouth would certainly help to pack Disney Hall.


Photos courtesy of AYO and internet sources