Youth Orchestra Marks Decade With A Concert Uniting Starry Alumni

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Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and pianist Daniil Trifonov teamed with alumni from the National Youth Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. (Photos by Chris Lee)

NEW YORK — To celebrate the 10th anniversary of NYO-USA, the National Youth Orchestra, Carnegie Hall assembled alumni from the first decade of the program to create the NYO-USA All-Stars. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the ensemble in the March 14 Annual Joan and Sanford I. Weill Tribute Concert, marking the support of the longtime board member and his wife, whose generosity over 40 years has provided substantial funding for this and other Carnegie initiatives.

NYO-USA was the brainchild of Carnegie Hall director Clive Gillinson, who had played cello in a youth orchestra in his native Britain. Most summers since the program’s inception in 2013, an orchestra of hand-picked student musicians in their late teens has spent two midsummer weeks on a campus north of New York City, rehearsing and coaching to prepare for a Carnegie Hall performance and a tour. The all-scholarship program has added an orchestra for younger teens and another for budding jazz musicians, but the NYO-USA is the flagship ensemble. A third of the players in the All-Stars concert had participated in NYO-USA for two or even three seasons — you could call it the crème de la crème of summer music camps.

Perusing the roster, which included musicians’ professional or educational affiliations, it was clear that a season or two with NYO-USA offers a boost toward a professional career. Of the 103 members, about a third are currently students, more than half of them at conservatories (including 11 at Juilliard). Others are enrolled at liberal arts universities with strong music programs (Rice is popular), and a handful are enrolled at Ivy League schools.

Another third have professional orchestra jobs, mostly in North America, but several in Europe. A few string players belong to established quartets, four alumni have college-level teaching jobs, two play in U.S. government ensembles, two more have early-music fellowships, and five have orchestra fellowships, including two with the Berlin Philharmonic. And 14 players list themselves as freelance musicians, including two who play Broadway shows. Almost half of the ensemble is based in or near New York City.

NYO-USA was the brainchild of Carnegie Hall director Clive Gillinson, who had played cello in a youth orchestra in his native Britain.

When the alumni returned to Carnegie on March 14, it was clear that the young musicians had transitioned to a new phase in their professional development. Instead of the NYO-USA’s casual uniform of red pants, white shirts, black jackets, and black-and-white high tops, the All-Stars wore all black, accessorized with red boutonnieres. The house was very well sold, with the usual summer audiences of extended family members bearing bouquets replaced by a more typical ticket-buying public.

Daniil Trifonov was the starry soloist for Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F (1925). The pianist left his native Russia to study with Sergei Babayan in Cleveland when he was 18, the average age of musicians in the NYO-USA. Now 33, Trifonov has garnered many major international competition wins and industry awards, performing and recording as solo artist, chamber musician, and concerto soloist with major orchestras worldwide. His playing combines power and delicacy, fluidity and ease.

On paper, Gershwin’s concerto seemed like an ideal fit for Trifonov and the youthful musicians led by the effervescent Nézet-Séguin. Yet for this listener the piece didn’t quite gel. There was plenty of energy and enthusiasm, especially from the percussion, but the Jazz Age insouciance was missing — it sounded like everyone was trying too hard. The All-Stars have a deep bench, with wonderful playing in the winds and brass, but “blue” notes were overdone. Trifonov played with both power and refinement, giving a lesson in natural-sounding flexibility. Still, the audience was thrilled by the energy, calling conductor and soloist back for multiple ovations. For an encore, Trifonov offered a tenderly played Bill Evans arrangement of the pop standard “When I Fall in Love” (Young/Heyman, 1952), modeling for the young players the art of expressive understatement.

Nézet-Séguin applauded the orchestra after they performed Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7.

After intermission, the orchestra offered Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 in C Major (Leningrad). The forceful work depicts the Nazi siege of Leningrad, which the composer reportedly later referred to as “the city that Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off.” The symphony is a fierce and moody marathon of monumental solemnity, punctuated by an array of emotions for the musicians to sink their teeth into. The players seemed to have settled down, with strings sounding more cohesive and especially fine wind and brass work. I could quibble that the jaunty first movement “Invasion” march that gradually morphs into a powerful depiction of battlefield violence didn’t quite land, but the playing was clean and energetic.

Clocking in at just over 75 minutes, the symphony was more than double the length of the Gershwin, and more emotionally demanding. Some of the audience left before the end. They missed a stirring and cathartic arc that resonates in this time of global unease.

The concert was streamed live on Deutsche Grammophon’s platform Stage+, and will be added to CarnegieHall+ in the coming weeks.