Tuba To Tennies, Youth Orchestra Ready To Rumble

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The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America made its Tanglewood debut on a cross-country tour. (NYO-USA photos by Chris Lee)
The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, in its Tanglewood Festival debut, led by David Robertson.
(NYO-USA photos by Chris Lee)
By Marvin J. Ward

LENOX, Mass. – The 2014 edition of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America began its cross-country tour here in Western Massachusetts on July 24 after a busy two-week training residency at Purchase College in Westchester County, NY. There, 120 of the nation’s top teenage musicians, selectively chosen through rigorous annual audition, sought to become a cohesive ensemble through instrumental coaching from prominent members of the nation’s major orchestras and a conducting roster headed by David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony.

Conductor Robertson and violinist Andrew Cheshire, sharply attired.
Maestro Robertson, NYO-USA fiddler Andrew Cheshire, officially clad.

After their first NYO-USA concert, at Purchase, it was on to a triumphant appearance at Carnegie Hall, and a U.S. tour that includes stops in ChicagoTeton Village, Wyo., Rohnert Park in California’s Sonoma Valley, and Los Angeles’ Disney Hall. The orchestra also taped an episode for NPR’s From the Top, featuring the young musicians in performance and conversation, for broadcast on participating stations through July 28 and available here for streaming on demand.

It’s only the second year for this young orchestra, which was founded in 2012 by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, with support from several individuals and  private foundations, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts. The program has a projected $10 million budget for the first five years.

This year’s 120 attendees hail from 33 states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The roster even includes an orchestra librarian apprentice and an orchestra personnel apprentice.

As part of their summer-camp-like bonding experience at Purchase, each section was asked to produce a video, with high-energy results ranging from silly (check out the bassoon quiz show at right) to serious — a cello ensemble arrangement of “What a Wonderful World.” The trumpets show off their skills with TV-style “Opening Credits;”  a harpist and pianist poke fun at their instruments’ place in the orchestral hierarchy in  “Expectations vs. Reality.”

Robertson discuss 'Radial Play' with composer Samuel Adams.
Robertson discusses ‘Radial Play’ with composer Samuel Carl Adams.

The organization commissions a new work each year; last year it was New York City-based Sean Shepherd’s Magiya (Magic, in Russian). This year, Oakland, Cal.-based Samuel Carl Adams, son of composer John Adams, wrote Radial Play, shared in the orchestra’s residency, and went along on the tour. The conductor and soloists also rotate annually. Last year, Valery Gergiev led concerts in Russia and London, with violinist Joshua Bell performing Tchaikovsky; this year, violinist Gil Shaham is the soloist. The orchestra is scheduled to perform in China next year.

NYO-USA 2014 stars and stripes sneakers.
Red, white and blue sneakers finish off the team uniform.

For the Tanglewood and tour concerts, the players have been outfitted in snappy uniforms, designed by Fred Bernstein, that feature red pants, black jackets, white shirts with dark charcoal gray ties sporting pins that superimpose the American flag on the shape of the continental U.S., and custom Converse sneakers decked out with stars and stripes. At Tanglewood, Robertson and Shaham wore the sneakers and donned the red pants as well, below their traditional white bow ties and black tails.

This year’s program includes a representative selection from across the spectrum of the orchestral literature –a war horse, a neglected work, a pops piece, and a brand new work, all offering appropriate challenges and diverse learning experiences.

The concert opener was Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. This was music that the players could readily get into, and they did, with finger snapping and whistling as well as body movements accompanying their playing. The violins had some fun with this one earlier at Purchase; their must-see hallway confrontation video — “Violin Side Story” — imitated the original Broadway show’s Sharks and Jets street taunts.

Gil Shaham, performing Tchaikovsky, at Tanglewood.
Gil Shaham plays Britten’s Violin Concerto on the NYO-USA tour.

Britten’s Violin Concerto surely posed a greater challenge than the Bernstein. Written  in 1939, as the clouds of war were forming in Europe, it is troubled and pessimistic, disturbed and distressed, sometimes revealing serious pain: Britten was an avowed pacificist. The concerto has several extended moments of solo violin that are quietly meditative, but also shrill and insistently repetitive.

All told, the work is less dramatically varied than the Bernstein, more of a piece, but demanding of the musicians in a more intense way, and they rose to the occasion. Shaham was stellar in a performance that elicited a standing ovation, suggesting that the work and the performance spoke to the audience in spite of its harshness and stress.

Samuel Carl Adams takes a bow at Tanglewood.
Samuel Carl Adams takes a bow at Tanglewood for his ‘Radial Play.’

The concert included Adams’ short piece, which he describes as “a series of contrapuntal ‘objects’ (with) a center pitch around which the rest of the music orbits.” The title Radial Play struck me as apt, as the work plays with sounds in circular fashion in a modern, tonal, and pleasant way, and the musicians seemed to be having a good time with it. Prior to the concert, I met and spoke with the composer, who was exuberant about his time with the musicians at Purchase. He seemed as blown away by the musicians’ abilities, as were the Tanglewood audience and I.

The concluding piece was Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, originally composed for solo piano. This magnificent example of orchestration, with its immense internal variety of sounds building to a stunning climax, was a superb choice as an educational tool.

Throughout, the playing was of the highest caliber: controlled, precise, crisp, and nuanced, with perfect ensemble. The more informal garb did not produce relaxed performance standards. It was eminently clear, however, that Robertson had established an excellent rapport with the youths and that they responded with enthusiasm and pleasure, which he profusely acknowledged. Shaham was also visibly impressed with the orchestra’s achievement.

The program book included a roster indicating the cities and states of origin of each of the musicians, two of whom gave spoken program notes. Chairs and principals were not indicated, because they were rotated.

The audience’s zealous applause drew two encores: a shortened arrangement of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Suite, seen at right in rehearsal, and an arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” with the audience participating in a sing-along.

Upcoming tour dates include Chicago, July 28; Teton Village, Wyo., July 30; Rohnert Park, Cal., Aug. 2; and Los Angeles, Aug. 4. Click here for more information.

Marvin J. Ward was a founder of Classical Voice of New England. Since April 2011, he has been a Five Colleges Associate with Five Colleges, Inc., based at Smith College in Northampton, MA. His research and writing focus on music, currently French, and performances on historic pianos at the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham, MA.