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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Concert Review: A Grand Night for D Major

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the National Youth Orchestra.</>
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The players wore red pants: The National Youth Orchestra.
Photo © 2018 Weill Music Institute.
The National Youth Orchestra is Carnegie Hall's program for training young musicians through its Weill Music Institute. For the past five years, musicians have gone through a rigorous three-week training program in New York with professional musicians, culminating in a concert at that famous venue and a goodwill tour. This year's edition of the NYO debuted on Thursday night under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.

These young players had a world premiere to open with, thanks to the composer Ted Hearne and a commission from Carnegie Hall. This new piece Brass Tacks was anchored by a meditative, chugging figure for strings. This was continually interrupted by interpolations, eructations and squawks from the other sections of the orchestra. Even the tuned percussion evoked the annoying "marimba" tone of an iPhone. Perhaps Mr. Hearne was trying to recreate the modern musicus interruptus that plagues the listener in this 21st century. In that, he succeeded with humor and wit.

The orchestra was joined by Jean-Yves Thibaudet for the next work: the George Gershwin Piano Concerto. This three-movement work expands on some of the ideas first expressed by the composer in Rhapsody in Blue. It provides opportunities for solo trumpet, clarinet and low brass to duel with the solo instrument over an elaborate accompaniment that continually shifts musical styles while remaining within the traditional three-movement form.

Mr. Thibaudet is a musician of long experience whose repertory choices range from the operatic (he came to the fore playing Liszt transcriptions twenty-five years ago at a time when nobody did such a thing) to the jazz-inflected. With his taste for tuxes shot through with threads of iridescent purple, he cuts something of an old-fashioned figure on the stage, but there is nothing stodgy about the liquid ease of his technique. Indeed, he and Mr. Tilson Thomas made this a thrilling ride through Gershwin's musical imagination, helped by outstanding solo contributions from the NYO players.

The second half brought the young musicians back to the fore with Sibelius' Symphony No. 2. This is at once of the most engaging and challenging of this composer's symphonies, with a first movement that requires taut sectional playing and dialogue between blocks of woodwinds, trumpets and strings. The rhythmic control of the low strings may not have been as tight as one wished, but the passion of the music came through, with Mr. Thomas shepherding his charges through the narrowest and most treacherous passages.

The second movement starts with a simple figure in the low winds and builds to a sturdy and glowing climax. Although the rhythmic expression in the scherzo had the feeling of Finnish folk music, the giant climax of the work did not materialize the way it does in the very best performance. It was not for a lack of effort from the young horn players, answered by cascades of triumphant trumpets. It is that feeling and emotion comes out with seasoning and experience: qualities that a three-week intensive may not necessarily impart.

Whatever issues existed in the Sibelius were forgotten as Mr. Thomas took the mic for a short address to the audience and an introduction of each of the two encores. Elevation was achieved in the rowdy, playful performance of "Hoedown" from Aaron Copland's Rodeo, American music that is inexplicably banned from most concert stages. It was followed by a most unexpected final treat. This was Panda Chant, an a cappella work by Meredith Monk. Both encores will be played on the orchestra's upcoming tour of Asia. Perhaps there is hope, after all.

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