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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Concert Review: The New Teen Titans

The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America marks five years at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Members of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America,
also known as the Red Pants Brigade. Photo courtesy Carnegie Hall.
A concert performed by an orchestra of musicians between the age of sixteen to nineteen is usually not an occasion for comment. However, on Friday night, the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America played at Carnegie Hall, under the baton of Marin Alsop. The NYO-USA was established five years ago through the good offices of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute and remains an important initiative in the sadly neglected and underfunded field of American music education.

It would be fallacious to hold these young musicians, in their uniform of black jackets, red concert slacks and low-cut canvas sneakers to the same standard as the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics. There were missed notes, or notes played past the measure. There were some lured and awkward phrases. However the lack of polish in their playing was compensated for with a raw energy and enthusiasm, and a fearlessness as they took on the challenge of two works by modern composers and one of Gustav Mahler’s most familiar and most forbidding symphonies: the First.

The concert started with Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a four minute curtain raiser by John Adams that epitomizes the phrase “truth in advertising.” A repeatedly tapped woodblock provided the piston pump on that machines engine, with violins  winds and brass sawing, chirping and bellowing Mr. Adams’ trademark short cells of sound. Rough this the woodblock persisted, embodying either the ticking of an overworked engine or an excited woodpecker strapped firmly into the passenger seat. This is a work of propulsive movement that climaxes in a golden glow of sound.

Ms. Alsop proved to be a rally-class driver of this very large ensemble, navigating Mr. Adams’ gear-shifts of meter and phrase. She whipped the big orchestra around the hairpin turns while immersing the listener in the dens orchestral soundscape, Somehow this short piece seemed a lot longer and more absorbing then its four-minute length would indicate.

The orchestra seemed more enthusiastic about the second piece of the evening, the three movement Apu: A Tone Poem for Orchestra from the pen of Gabriella Lena Frank. This was a kind of concerto for orchestra in three movements, with complicated lines for woodwind a and high percussion. Its purpose: to depict the Apu, a wilderness spirit that appears to travelers high in the mountain passes of Peru. Like the playful mountain spirit, the spiritual center of Ms. Frank's work revealed itself slowly and proved to be well worth the journey. The final movement was exuberant and demanding.

Mahler's First Symphony is one of the composer's most accessible: an early statement of purpose loaded with quotes from the composer's own songs, children's rhymes and even a fragment of Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel. It remains popular with audiences and regularly programmed as a result. However the four movements of this symphony (once nicknamed “the Titan”) are a stiff climb for even the most seasoned professional band. Here. The NYO-USA players seemed challenged in the first movement where woodwind phrases were overextended and the first roar of the horns feeble and timid. However, Ms. Alsop recognized the difficulties and responded with an urgent tempo, letting the energy of the movement build and build before erupting in a storm of timpani and trumpet in its closing pages.

The dance movement was taken at a similar urgent pace, with the cellos chugging out the rollicking almost nautical rhythm. Some slurred string phrases in the trio were forgivable. E slow movement was super, a smoldering funeral march that ascended into a manic celebration before relapsing into the quiet meditation of the opening theme. The final movement detonated, with Ms. Alsop letting her charges burst forth into exuberant fanfares. Wind and brass. Indeed, the horn section did the heroic, heavy lifting at the end. They stood and played proudly with robust tone and bells raised for maximum volume, hammering home the last notes of this audacious and ebullient work.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.