Since 1984, the New York Youth Symphony has awarded commissions to 102 composers age 30 and under, whose works have won three Pulitzer Prizes and the Grawemeyer Award, among other accolades. Those commissioned by the ensemble include Michael Torke, Aaron Jay Kernis, Augusta Read Thomas, Kevin Puts and Derek Bermel.
As part of this impressive commitment to music by living composers, the Youth Symphony — which offers tuition-free instruction to talented musicians ages 12 to 22 — presents a new piece at each of its Carnegie Hall concerts. On Sunday afternoon it was the premiere of John Glover’s “Natural Systems,” performed as part of the orchestra’s 50th-anniversary celebrations.
Joshua Gersen, music director of the ensemble, led a confident performance of Mr. Glover’s appealing work, scored for ensemble and solo baritone. The libretto, by Kelley Rourke, was inspired by the life and writings of the 18th-century Swedish scientist and botanist Carl Linnaeus.
The bass-baritone Evan Hughes impressed with a rich, sonorous voice, although he sometimes didn’t project sufficiently over the louder orchestral sections. Mr. Glover’s vivid score ranges from energetic swirls to a gentle, enigmatic conclusion as the protagonist muses about his boyhood: “And so I learned to hold names in my head, long after the flower had collapsed in my sweaty grasp.”
Mr. Gersen — who is also an assistant conductor of the New World Symphony, where he works with Michael Tilson Thomas — concluded the program with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, which was loudly denounced after its 1889 premiere. Mahler’s friends subsequently avoided him; he told an acquaintance that “nobody dared talk to me about the performance and my work, and I went around like a sick person or an outcast.” For Mahler, like Linnaeus, the natural world was a constant source of inspiration; the composer described the slow introductory movement as nature awakening after a winter’s sleep.
A complex work lasting almost an hour, Mahler’s First Symphony is an ambitious piece for a youth orchestra. The Sunday performance was sometimes uneven, and over all not quite cohesive. But there was plenty of fine playing throughout, and Mr. Gersen effectively illuminated many details, beginning with the mysterious opening passages.
Harrison Hollingsworth, the ensemble’s assistant conductor, opened the program with an exciting rendition of the overture to Beethoven’s “Creatures of Prometheus,” notable for its polish, vigor and energy.