by Adam Baer
It is human nature to relish children who perform incredible feats. Mozart stole the heart of Europe as a child prodigy, as did Yehudi Menuhin. The underage virtuoso brigade and those who nurture them aren’t slowing down today.
Yet the draw of the New York Youth Symphony, which closed its 40th anniversary season Sunday in Carnegie Hall, is not the circus-act wonder that accompanies a 10-year-old violinist playing Brahms at lightning speed. The talented, well-rounded teenage members of this tuition-free band — arguably America’s best youth orchestra — are not, on the whole, prodigious. No, their appeal is more compelling than wizardry: They grip you because it’s evident how hard they rehearse, how much they love music and want to perform it well.
Sunday’s performance, led by music director Paul Haas, a young maestro who enjoys the power of extreme physical gestures, began with a fluid reading of Wagner’s "Tannhäuser" overture that displayed an emphatic low brass section and articulate string players. Violin tremolos shimmered over a smooth solo horn. Crescendos occurred gradually and with immediacy at once. And Mr. Haas showed himself to be a great, vibrant communicator of what in a musical piece needs to happen when.
Indeed, that’s one of the winning ways the orchestra functions: It chooses to hire young maestros who use the group as a learning vessel while teaching musicians close in age to them; the direction the musicians receive, therefore, isn’t from an authoritative educator, but rather from an accessible role model. The group’s previous conductor, Mischa Santora, left old-school precision and depth with the band; Paul Haas is bringing it electricity.
Another novel quality of the Youth Symphony is its "First Music" program: Every concert is guaranteed to feature a world premiere work from a rising young composer. In this guise, young musicians work with a young conductor on something written by one of their peers. It’s not only a new way to hear new music and a great opportunity for conductors, it’s a great experience for players.
Many talented instrumentalists who either play in other youth symphonies or attend the pre-college programs of New York’s conservatories don’t get a chance to play truly new American music until their college years. And even then, it’s usually music written by someone seasoned. New music is important to learn on: it teaches musicians to count, to use their instruments in non-traditional ways, and to remain open to techniques like atonality, which continue to annoy a shockingly large number of professionals, in part, because they didn’t play modern music as children.
Sunday’s premiere was "If I Forget Thee" by Brian Herrington, a work inspired by a comment made by William Faulkner upon winning the 1950 Nobel Prize. ("I decline to accept the end of man," he said.) The work begins with cacophony of the tragic variety and then segues into a mixture of modernism and folk traditions from the South; a cellist strums her instrument while wearing a metal fitting over her left fingers like a banjo player, and violinists fiddle a hymn. It was an intriguing blend of common-man expression and formal acuity.
The Youth Symphony also often features a well-known soloist, often from the annals of the group’s alumni like violinist Cho Liang Lin. This concert, however, welcomed pianist Misha Dichter in a brash orchestral rendition of Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue," where the jazzy excitement of the orchestral musicians eclipsed any slips or rhythmic inconsistencies of the soloist. Even a work like this, after all, is probably new to the Symphony’s musicians, and it’s hard to explain just how thrilling it is to play for the first time Gershwin’s New York masterwork behind a famous pianist in Carnegie Hall.
Attach that sentiment to the orchestra’s second-half reading of Bartók’s eloquent " Concerto for Orchestra," but add a dose of exactitude that would benefit many professional symphonies. Mr. Haas led the group through a truly polished performance of the Hungarian modernist’s last Symphonic masterwork.
Mysteriously dark cello lines opened with work as witty flute solos sang atop the strings. The second movement’s bassoon dance frolicked with sarcasm that intensified in the fourth movement’s waltz. And gigantic climaxes written over shifty rhythms bellowed with an uncanny amount of energy and passion. It was as finely tuned and stirring a performance of this piece as New York has heard in some time.
The New York Youth Symphony now also offers programs for young composers, chamber musicians, conductors, and jazz players; next week, its "Jazz Band Classic," a band devoted to the big bands of the 1930s and 1940s, makes its Carnegie debut. With such depth to its programming, it’s clearly the city’s preeminent training institution. But it’s also a great artistic vehicle. Many of the professional musicians trolling the city’s top stages got their start in this band, after all, and many of them were already pretty amazing as teenagers. The band’s next three-concert season features both Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and violinist Cho Liang Lin. Parents with musical children should certainly consult the group’s Web site for program information; and any music lover in search of a new brand of concert-going elation might do equally as well with a subscription.