Decked In Blazing Red, Youth Orchestra Puts USA Stamp On Berlioz


Gil Shaham was soloist in Barber’s Violin Concerto at Carnegie Hall with Andrew Davis leading the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America. (Photos by Chris Lee)

NEW YORK — Summer music camp is a long-standing tradition for the lucky young American music students who can attend. Lifelong friendships and careers are born at places like Interlochen, Kinhaven, Brevard, and dozens of others. In Europe, in addition to tuition-funded training programs, fee-free government-sponsored youth orchestras abound, on both a national and pan-European level. Ensembles like the European Union Youth Orchestra, Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, and Verbier Festival Orchestra — some of which also accept non-European players — provide high level pre-professional experiences to the finest young instrumentalists.

As a teenager, Carnegie Hall executive director Clive Gillinson played cello in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain; the experience was foundational. When he came to Carnegie in 2005, he was astonished not to find a similar organization in the U.S. and decided to set one up through Carnegie. 2013 marked the debut of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, made up of top-level teen instrumentalists residing in the U.S. aged 16-19. Four years later, NYO added NYO2, specifically for younger teens, aged 14-16, from backgrounds with fewer opportunities for high-level training. 2018 saw the addition of NYO-Jazz. Both programs are thriving; this year, in addition to their Carnegie Hall concerts, NYO2 will give two concerts in the Dominican Republic, and NYO-Jazz will perform at six European music festivals.

Members of the wind, brass, and percussion sections

While NYO-USA is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2023, technically this is the program’s 11th year. As with most of the world, 2020 plans were disrupted by the pandemic. Nonetheless, with successful candidates having been notified barely a week before the shutdown, the umbrella Carnegie Hall organization National Youth Ensembles devised an all-online program, with rehearsals, private lessons, and even a virtual performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with individual members recording their parts and appearing on a tiled screen. The 2021 program was a mix of in-person and online, but 2022 returned to normal operations, culminating in the group’s fourth European tour. The ensemble has worked with world-renowned conductors, soloists, and composers, and has toured three continents.

For the official 10th anniversary season, NYO-USA spent two weeks in residence at SUNY Purchase, working with conductor Andrew Davis and a 16-member faculty of principal players from American orchestras. This year’s student roster comprises 105 instrumentalists, two composers, and one apprentice librarian and orchestra manager. First-chair and solo duties are shared, with musicians moving to different seats between pieces.

The newly minted ensemble launched its eight-city North American tour July 13 in Groton, Conn. I attended their second concert at Carnegie Hall the next evening. The young musicians sported the orchestra’s signature uniform of bright red slacks, black blazers, white shirts or blouses, and black-and-white high-top sneakers. A gratifyingly filled house appeared populated largely with families and friends, but also with knowledgeable local music lovers (“Best concert in town,” confided a colleague). There’s great pleasure in discovering young talent, and the hand-picked teen musicians were ready to strut their stuff. They did not disappoint.

Andrew Davis leading NYO-USA at Carnegie Hall

The curtain raiser, Valerie Coleman’s newly commissioned Giants of Light for large orchestra, perfectly captured the exhilaration of the ensemble making its Carnegie Hall debut. In under 10 minutes, the piece sampled a gamut of moods and textures, with solos emerging from the ensemble like spontaneous exclamations. A mini-overture of sorts, full of shifting meters, it ebbed and flowed, with a barely controlled rousing finale. The young musicians appeared as happy as the enthusiastic audience.

Before the next piece, the orchestra members moved to different positions onstage: The first concertmaster was now replaced with another violinist, and a cellist I had spotted at the back of the section now occupied the first chair. Barber’s Violin Concerto tapped a sustained and unabashedly romantic mood. Soloist Gil Shaham, wearing NYO-issue high-tops with his concert attire, played with sweet tone, tender legato, and pinpoint intonation, even in the relentless third movement. The orchestra seemed to connect emotionally with the work’s lush emotionalism.

As an encore, the violinist offered Scott Wheeler’s wry Isolation Rag — wistful and Joplinesque, with quirky interjections, written for Shaham early in the pandemic.

An oboist played the solo in the third movement of Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie fantastique’ from the Dress Circle.

After intermission came Berlioz’s wild and formidable Symphonie fantastique. This is ambitious repertoire for any orchestra (NYO-USA performed it in 2015), but the variety of solo work made it an apt showcase for individual talents as well as sections. The heaving rubatos of the first movement largo didn’t quite gel, but by the first exposition of the “idée fixe,” the ensemble had settled in. The second-movement waltz lilted trippingly, and the pastoral third movement provided a serene call-and-response between the onstage English horn and an oboe answering from the Dress Circle. The “March to the Scaffold” was a frenzied juggernaut, and the “Witches’ Sabbath” a fevered romp. If there were a few blips in the brass and too much percussion, the young players were more than up to the fierce energy and concentration required.

By chance, a few hours before the concert, I had heard Zubin Mehta conduct the Verbier Festival Orchestra in Symphonie fantastique, streamed live from the festival opening. The Swiss orchestra had perhaps more polish than NYO, but Davis’ interpretation brought more shape and character to this strange and challenging piece. I would love to hear how the Berlioz evolves by the group’s final performance in San Diego.

With the concert lasting well past 10 p.m., and ovations worthy of a rock concert, NYO-USA capped the evening with the “Marsch” from Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.

NYO-USA at Carnegie Hall

NYO-USA continues its tour through July 28, performing in Quebec, Nashville, Dallas, Jackson Hole, Stanford, and San Diego. For tour and ticket information, check the Carnegie Hall calendar here.

To listen to the Carnegie concert, which should be posted soon, click here.

More performances by NYO-USA can be found on their YouTube channel.