Infectious Energy of the National Youth Orchestra

August 2, 2014

National Youth OrchestraThe audience filing into Saturday’s National Youth Orchestra concert at Weill Hall in Rohnert Park was greeted by the sight and sound of 120 teenaged musicians furiously warming up and clad in a patriotic outfit of red pants and sneakers, white shirts, and … black blazers, ties, and scarves? So much for the red, white, and blue, but the costumes were beguiling nonetheless.

Equally beguiling were the folks sporting those costumes: fresh-faced young people aged 16 to 19, brimming with confidence and excitement. For many of them, one suspects, this concert and the others on their current tour are the event of a lifetime. Some may continue as professional musicians, though most are likely to veer into better-paying careers. For now, however, they’re all playing together, unbesmirched by adult concerns.

They continued warming up, creating an ever more deafening noise until the lights went down and conductor David Robertson bounded out, his step lightened by the same Converse sneakers that the teenagers wore. Seconds later, the massive ensemble — which included 36 violins — slammed into Leonard Bernstein’s symphonic dances from West Side Story.

The sound was impressive, to say the least. Everyone played with youthful energy, adhering closely to Robertson’s motions. He sharply accented the beats in the opening prologue and then turned the orchestra on a dime for the memorable “Somewhere.” A serene beginning with gorgeous string solos ended with a huge swell from the rest of the orchestra, which exhibited precise dynamic control throughout the dances.

Guided by Robertson’s relaxed and apparently effortless conducting, the orchestra played the remaining six dances with equal parts fervor and command. The “mambo” shout in that dance rang throughout the hall, confirming that everyone was having a great time. On occasion, Robertson really danced on the podium, gathering his forces for a sudden crescendo or dramatic off-beat. All the solos were great, particularly the flute at the end.

While introducing the next piece, 16-year-old French hornist Andrew Angelos observed that the Bernstein “sounds better when played by a youth orchestra — we tend to have more energy.”

While introducing the next piece, 16-year-old French hornist Andrew Angelos observed that the Bernstein “sounds better when played by a youth orchestra — we tend to have more energy.”

Soloist Gil Shaham proved equally energetic in the Britten violin concerto, one of five concertos from the 1930s featured on his recent two-CD set. On that recording, he’s accompanied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but the National Youth Orchestra sounded just as good, if not better.

Shaham is an engaging performer. He invariably smiles after difficult passages and frequently turns around to encourage his fellow musicians. His bow control is superb and his intonation spot-on, even in the highest registers. His performance of the notoriously difficult Britten concerto was faultless and impassioned, which is more than I can say of the piece itself.

Youth OrchestraWhile the concerto is full of memorable snippets and breathtaking solos, it lacks a coherent narrative. At times it sounds like a partita for solo violin superimposed on a threnody for orchestra. It hasn’t aged nearly as well as the Barber and Berg concertos written around the same time, nor is it performed as often. Still, it’s a dazzling workout for the soloist, and Shaham was resplendent.

The second half began with a major reshuffling. The string sections, for instance, were completely reversed. The first two chairs were now in the back row, and the back row was now in the front. The intent seemed to spring from a desire to give everyone equal playing opportunities, helping them move beyond a ‘I’m not playing second fiddle’ mentality.

Once the orchestra settled in, they eased into Radial Play, by the 20-something composer Samuel Adams. True to its title, the work consists of short sections that radiate out from a central pitch. In the first section, for example, the harp plucks out a central pitch and then the other instruments join in with brief, accented entries that accumulate into a dense but refreshingly bright sound marked by unusual percussion and strong syncopations.

Radial Play is full of promise but is over almost as soon as it begins. Perhaps Adams can use a similar structure for a longer, more fully developed future composition.

The transcendent moments came in the concluding “Great Gate at Kiev,” where the teenagers played full out, with no holds barred.

Rounding out the show was a spine-tingling performance of Mussorgsky/Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This oft-performed masterpiece is a rite of passage for young musicians, with each generation bringing its own insight and style. The style here was vivid, with hints of transcendence. The apprentices breathed new life into the familiar melodies, playing with conviction and impressive speed, especially in “The Market at Limoges.”

The transcendent moments came in the concluding “Great Gate at Kiev,” where the teenagers played full out, with no holds barred. It was a triumph of youth. At the end, everyone was smiling, except for one violinist, who seemed overcome with emotion after such a splendid performance.

Two encores followed: the suite from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and an arrangement of “America the Beautiful.” The former was marvelous, but the latter seemed more a product of patriotic fervor than musical inspiration.

No matter. All told, the National Youth Orchestra is a force to be reckoned with.

Steve Osborn, a medical writer and editor by day, moonlights as a violist, singer, and music critic.