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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Concert Review: Hey Now, They Wear All-Stars

The National Youth Orchestra of the U.S.A. plays Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The young artists of the National Youth Orchestra, rehearsing at SUNY Purchase.
Phoo by Chris Lee © 2016 Carnegie Hall.
Carnegie Hall is usually quiet in the summer months, its hallowed stage bereft of the pianists, orchestras and conductors that parade across its boards in the other three seasons of the year. And yet on July 14, that venue was abuzz with the activity normally associated with a big symphonic concert. The risers were installed. The instruments were arranged. The piano was brought in. The reason: the second annual appearance of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach.

The NYO-USA was started in 2012 by Carnegie Hall's own Weill Music Institute. This initiative provides talented young musicians with the opportunity to play major repertory in collaboration with a starry cavalcade of conductors. This program, prepared in the concert hall at SUNY Purchase before being brought to the Big Apple featured Mozart's beloved Piano Concerto No. 22 paired with Anton Bruckner's less loved (but no less interesting) Symphony No. 6 in A, known to some by its nickname "the Philosopher."

For the Mozart, the soloist was Emanuel Ax, a transplanted New Yorker whose polished, professional pianism is one of this city's great cultural assets. No. 22 is the sound of Mozart the young concert artist, secure in his abilities (he was about to begin work on Le Nozze di Figaro and engaging in playful games with his accompanying orchestra. Mr. Ax's performance of the first movement captured that state of play, his fingers alighting on the keys with grace and reserves of power and emotion.

Those reserves were deployed in the second movement, one of Mozart's most profound utterances for this combination of instruments. The musicians behind Mr. Ax, clad in distinctive scarlet trousers and (of all things) black and white canvas Converse sneakers, responded accordingly, with a sense of depth and profundity in the strings and wind. The skipping finale, with its unusual dive into what seems like the trio from an unwritten scherzo brought the work to a bright and brilliant close.

Whether you're an orchestral player, an internationally known conductor or a member of the audience, the weighty symphonies of Anton Bruckner demand a certain degree of faith. One should believe both in the central idea that the composer was trying to express without words. Furthermore, it helps to realize that Bruckner, with his radical ideas about orchestration and use of repetition, different voicings in the orchestra and enormous, sky-spanning structures of sound knew exactly what he wanted and where he was going. The Sixth is the shortest of his mature symphonies and one that (mercifully) escaped Bruckner's notorious habit of revising (and over-revising) his works. This is a good thing.

Under Mr. Eschenbach, these young players showed the degree of faith and naïvete that can result in a magical performance. The opening movement, with its chivvying violins answered by a mighty roar of horns, trombones and trumpet was played with a firm grasp of its complex architecture, as the cathedral of sound added transept, flying buttresses and finally a spire of sound in a ferocious, pounding rhythm that was Bruckner at his most uninhibited.

The slow second movement (Bruckner was known in his native Austria as the Adagio-komponist) built from a simple oboe melody to another gorgeous shout of brass. Mr. Eschenbach went very slowly here, gradually illuminating astructure that gradually added weight and bulk to itself as it rolled forward in its majesty. The scherzo alternated between a lumbering, slightly tipsy dance for celebrating peasants to a more graceful second movement. The recapitulation of the pounding first theme was a thrilling moment.

In the finale of a Bruckner symphony (and all are built on this structure) a new thematic idea dominates and is eventually repeated in the good company of the principal themes that came in the previous movements. Bruckner was inspired in this idea by the thematic repetitions in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Here, as the thundering NYOUSA brass bellowed forth in the final bars, the realization of this group's accomplishment hit with full force. This was an orchestra playing at a very high level indeed.

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