If you want to fill the seats of your concert hall with young people, put young people on stage. The National Youth Orchestra of the United States, musicians ages 16 to 19, played the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for the first time Saturday night, and the hall was overrun with families, friends, fellow members of the region’s youth orchestras and aspirants.
The NYO-USA, spearheaded by Carnegie Hall, is starting with a bang. It’s good news that Carnegie Hall is putting a lot of money into an outlet for talented young musicians. Money and prestige; the inaugural tour goes from Washington to London and Russia with conductor Valery Gergiev and violin soloist Joshua Bell. The kids — garbed in fire-engine red pants — are audibly thrilled. On Saturday, the orchestra, 120 members strong, presented the sonic equivalent of a Labrador, leaping out into the hall with infectious, woofy, enormous energy.
The hype, though, is slightly frustrating. There are so many significant youth orchestra programs around the country, doing important work, often without much media attention, that it seems unfair to herald this new orchestra as if it was breaking new ground. This was underlined Sunday night, when the Kennedy Center/National Symphony Orchestra’s annual Summer Music Institute Orchestra performed: same venue, same basic talent pool (the SMI’s musicians range from 15 to 20) but a lower-key affair, and admission was free.
Artistically, the difference between the two wasn’t as great as the context might lead you to expect. The NYO has followed the lead of the acclaimed Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra — long Venezuela’s national youth orchestra — in its monumental size. That many people playing together results in an impressive sound, even if the strings were slightly woolly at the beginning and there was a touch of callowness in the winds. The SMI orchestra, with 68 members, was lither, lighter and a shade paler. Of course, the groups have different goals: The NYO is focused exclusively on performance, where the SMI musicians (who will perform again July 28) were at the start of a three-week training program with a lot of different components.
The NYO is showcasing American youth with a predominantly Russian program — Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony — under a Russian conductor. This is supposed to be a gesture of cultural diplomacy, though it seems a little odd; the idea of a Russian tour as a cultural icebreaker smacks of the 1960s. The program did open with a new commission by an American composer, Sean Shepherd. But he, too, sounded the Russian theme in the Russian-inspired festive overture “Magiya,” a lively, bubbling collection of sounds.
The other specifically American element in the evening is Bell. A former wunderkind, he represents the dreams of many of the young musicians around him. And he certainly makes a beautiful sound on the violin, though his phrasing is sometimes overblown and his playing is sometimes careless. At some of the tempos Gergiev took, his rapid passagework got muddy, and at the start of the third movement the orchestra nearly blew the soloist offstage. The whole thing was a tribute to young energy more than coordination.