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Thursday, July 26, 2018

Concert Review: The Children of the Revolution

The NYO2 in concert at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
All hands: The dapper Gil Shaham shows the tools of his trade.
He played Carnegie Hall with the NYO2 on Tuesday night.
The orchestra training initiative undertaken five years ago by Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute has been an unqualified success. On Tuesday night, as the National Youth Orchestra of the United States took the stage in a theater in China, it was the turn of NYO2, the supplementary training orchestra featuring performers from the age of 14-17 to take on the task of performing at Carnegie Hall.



Like their older counterparts, NYO2 affect an onstage uniform: canvas sneakers, red pants and white polo shirts emblazoned with the NYO2 logo. Supported and supplemented by black-clad members of the New World Symphony in Miami these young musicians played with both maturity and youthful enthusiasm driving their feet on the stage in support of their maestro and attacking the works works before them with serious purpose. They chose a stiff and challenging program for this concert, entirely of works written in the 20th century. The concert was led by guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, the current music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Mexico in that nation's capital city.

The concert opened with an inspired and obscure choice: Erich Kleiber's arrangement of the incidental music from Redes, the first film score by the important but neglected Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. A touchstone influence on composers from Latin America, Revueltas was a friend of contemporary of a guy voracious and an innovator in applying the ideas and structures of Mexican folk music two large scale orchestral tone painting without resorting to the cheesy practice of quoting popular tunes. This 20 minute excerpt from Redes and five contiguous sections some of them light and lyric, others celebratory.  There were dark, violent minor-key sections depicting the struggle of poor fishing villagers against corporate intimidation and all-out street violence.

The enthusiastic young musicians were joined by the ever-enthusiastic Gil Shaham, playing Serge Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto. This is a unique work in which the flamboyant composer turned the idea of the violin concerto on its head. Not only did he write a through-composed orchestra between instrument and orchestra that spans three movements, but he also tossed traditional ideas of virtuosity while demanding the utmost effort from his soloist. Mr. Shaham, with his deep experience of playing this work, met Prokofiev's challenges with ease and seem to really enjoy his eye-driven interaction with the young players in the string section. Following tumultuous applause, he obliged with an encore: the fast-paced second movement of the concerto played as an enthusiastic reprise.

It is impossible for listeners or critics to separate the Shostakovich Fifth from its tormented history. (The work was written in haste after controversy erupted over the freedom of composers to create in Stalin's Russia, and may have been the composition that saved its creator's life, not to mention his career.)  However the performance as given by the NY02 players reminded one of the force and majesty of the sprawling first movement. Is it a coded condemnation of a country under siege from its own government? Is it an expression of human triumph against incredible odds. As played here, the answer is yes to both questions as these teenagers took the listener on a thrilling ride through the roller-coaster first movement. (It should be noted that the spooky textures heard here are drawn directly from the pages of the withdrawn Fourth Symphony. Listening to those two works side-by-side is a  most instructive experience.)

The second movement is the composer at his guarded and sarcastic best a lumping dance that starts in the bassoons and eventually runs roughshod over the listener. This broken processional is  interrupted by a curious and stately trio melody. The third movement builds from an icy frozen silence into a cry of despair that something to the more impassioned moments of Gustav Mahler. Shostakovich's triumph comes in the last movement, which Mr. Prieto took at a rapid tempo. Although one doubts whether this is a real victory or hollow display, there was no denying the surging power of the young brass players and sawing strings as they pounded out the savage triumph of the final notes.

Mr. Prieto and his charges then offered to inspired if not especially well known on course. The first of these was an Intermezzo from  La boda de Luis Alonso by the Mexican composer Géronimo Giménez. This winding and fascinating work echoed some of the musical ideas heard in the Revueltas, in that it created original orchestral themes painted with a distinctly meso-American brush. The second was the "Malambo" from the ballet Estancia by Alberto Ginastera, a work that has become popular for orchestras to play in recent years. The players bobbed, did waves in the wind section and the bassists spun their instruments. All this showmanship  may stem from the volatility of youth, but it's damned entertaining.

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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.