The so-called classical-music season in New York is over. It’s summertime, and the livin’ is queasy.
Somehow, the pause was temporarily dispelled on Saturday. The occasion, however, was no bread-and-butter concert. This was a showcase for the National Youth Orchestra of the USA, a fancy preview of a seven-concert tour of China that begins on Wednesday.
The NYO employs 114 staggeringly talented, obviously eager players spanning the ages 16 to 19. The musicians hardly sound like ordinary symphonic virtuosi. In many ways they actually sound better. And, as decked out for this festive occasion, they hardly look ordinary. Everyone, regardless of gender, models a black blazer atop screaming-scarlet trousers. The uniform seems pleasantly picturesque if aggressively sporty.
Less sporty, on the other hand, is Charles Dutoit, the reliable old-school maestro on duty. He clings to the summery custom of a white dinner jacket. Yundi, the celebrated piano soloist from China, apparently prefers formal tails. Ultimately, it was the playing, not the dress code, that counted, and the playing was astonishing.
The evening began with a bit of cosy gimmickry courtesy of the habitually innovative Tan Dun. His brand-new passacaglia, subtitled The Secret of Wind and Birds, dabbles busily for something like 10 minutes in such disparities as bird calls, chants, unison foot-stamping, finger snapping, orchestral outbursts and babble from smartphones conspicuously distributed onstage and out front. The conglomeration, officially commissioned by Carnegie Hall and predicated, we are told, on “hip-hop energy”, proved beguiling at best, painless at worst.
Midconcert, Yundi breezed nonchalantly through the fearsome intricacies of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. In the process, he made the mighty rhetoric seem more intimate than heroic. Nevertheless, his dapper energy and fleet articulation earned compensatory admiration. Dutoit sustained sympathetic momentum on the podium, with little fanfare and less fuss.
After the interval he validated the rambling indulgences of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique with clarity, frenzy, dynamism and bluster, as needed. Ever attentive and responsive, the novice orchestra played for him as if lives were at stake.
NYO tours China from July 15-26; carnegiehall.org