’Tis the season to be quiet in our concert halls. Nevertheless, the holiday lull was broken on Wednesday when the New York String Orchestra offered a remarkably diverse, dangerously ambitious programme at Carnegie Hall.
The New York String Orchestra? It is a training ensemble that congregates annually for 10 days of big-time tutelage in the big city. The 62 players range in age from 15 to 22. Not surprisingly, they exhibit more eagerness than suavity.
When this academic project was instituted in 1969, the maestro-pedagogue on duty was the violinist turned conductor Alexander Schneider. After his death in 1993, leadership was passed to another violinist turned conductor, Jaime Laredo. On this occasion he led his charges through the orderly ramblings of a romantic rarity, Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga’s Symphony in D Minor, the complex convolutions of Béla Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings and, for an irresistible pièce de résistance, the noble pathos of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, with André Watts as stellar soloist.
Laredo beat time fluidly and briskly, though he did not seem much concerned with subtle nuances, rhythmic impetus or dynamic contrasts. Perhaps he needed more time to polish rough edges. Just getting everyone to play the right notes in the right places may have been his ultimate challenge.
Arriaga’s little symphony, written in 1825 (a year before he died at the age of 19) runs its pretty course in 25 minutes, revealing a precocious assimilation of second-hand impulses and commanding respect even in a muddled performance. Bartók’s tough, paprika-accented diversion could make little impact as approximated here. Moods brightened, however, when Watts demonstrated the infectious power of Beethoven’s passion. Despite some clangorous attacks, the veteran pianist managed to balance gusto with delicacy, as needed, and he often inspired the ensemble to follow suit.