LENOX — As anyone who ever played in a youth orchestra will tell you, the experience can have ripple effects later in one’s life. Just ask, well, Clive Gillinson. Growing up as a cellist in the United Kingdom, Gillinson played in that country’s national youth orchestra, and went on to pursue a life in music, joining the London Symphony Orchestra and eventually becoming its managing director.
But the story does not end there. These days, Gillinson runs Carnegie Hall, and from that perch he noted that the United States had no country-wide equivalent to the ensemble of his own student days. So last year, Carnegie’s Weill Music Institute launched the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America. Student musicians (120 of them, ages 16 to19) are chosen each year from around the country. In early July they rehearse for two weeks in Purchase, N.Y., with a faculty of top orchestral players, and then a prominent conductor steps in to lead a week of performances.
Last year it was Valery Gergiev, who took the orchestra on tour to Europe and Russia. This year it is David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony, who is currently leading the group on a tour across the States, with a stop at a packed Ozawa Hall on Thursday night. Among the audience was a strong contingent of high school-age musicians from the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, some of them no doubt there to support friends on stage. Six NYO-USA players this year come from Massachusetts.
More broadly, this project arrives at a fertile time for youth orchestras. Over the decades the general technical caliber of these ensembles has grown consistently, but more recent years have also seen a leap in their visibility within the larger orchestral ecosystem. One source of this boost must surely be the enormous international success of Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. This group’s triumphs in the musical capitals of Europe and North America helped shift the prism, allowing both concert presenters and audiences to view these ensembles not only as groups with noble pedagogic goals performing for their own friends and family, but also as orchestras capable of engaging a wider concertgoing public through vibrant, technically accomplished, and refreshingly unjaded performances.
What kind of momentum the NYO-USA will ultimately be able to build is anyone’s guess, but judging from Thursday night’s performance, the project is off to an auspicious start. Perhaps taking a page from the Venezuelan book, this youth orchestra dresses the part, with each member wearing a dark top, bright red pants, and Converse All-Star sneakers. (Robertson donned his customary tails, but also sneakers.) The program opened with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” which received the best performance of the night, full of playing that was sharp, stylish, and alert. These high school students were of course all born after Bernstein died in 1990, and one might guess at least a portion of them needed the musical’s plot explained to them, but under Robertson’s probing direction, they nonetheless played this iconic music as if, by virtue of some intergenerational osmosis, it had become their own.
Next came Britten’s war-haunted Violin Concerto of 1939, a work recently championed by Gil Shaham, the celebrity soloist for this year’s tour. Shaham has the subtle technique to project the harrowing intricacies of this score, but his feeling for this music’s larger expressive arc, its grammar of burning tension and release, was less apparent, so the concerto even in his capable hands never really added up to more than the sum of its parts. More generally, I couldn’t help but wonder, looking ahead to future years, whether the group’s mission might be better served by choosing a soloist from among its own ranks.
The group at least made the smart choice of touring with a composition from a young American composer: in this case Samuel Adams, who has, one could say, entered the family business. (His father is the composer John Adams.) “Radial Play,” commissioned by Carnegie for this tour, is a short, kinetic, and bright-hued work, solid in craftsmanship, here given a vibrant reading by Robertson and his young musicians.
The night closed with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” in the well-known Ravel orchestration. The strings are clearly the strongest section in this year’s orchestra, but the winds and brasses rose to the occasion. Robertson led a richly atmospheric account, projecting just the right air of ancient mystery, for instance, in “Il Vecchio Castello,” and drawing the requisite thunder (if also overpowering the hall) in “The Great Gate of Kiev.” Two encores reasserted the opening note of musical patriotism, with music from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and an arrangement of “America the Beautiful.”
Throughout the night, Robertson’s podium work conveyed a relaxed warmth and generosity of spirit toward these young musicians. It’s clear that he would be a natural longer-term fit for this project. For now, however, the group is committed to a formula of rotating maestros. Next year it will be Charles Dutoit, bringing the ensemble on tour to — take a guess? you would be right — China.