by Anthony Tommasini
Over 43 seasons, the New York Youth Symphony has taken on daunting repertory. But not many pieces — not Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, not even Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" — are as hard to bring off as Mahler's tumultuous Symphony No. 6 in A minor.
So all praise to this orchestra of players ranging in age from 12 to 22 (though most are high school students) for its accomplished performance of the Mahler Sixth in its final concert of the season on Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall. The conductor was Paul Haas, the orchestra's lanky and dynamic 35-year-old music director, who does not look much older than his players. All in all, this was an involving and brave account of Mahler's 85-minute score.
But first the orchestra gave the premiere of a work by Takuma Itoh, a young composer. By artistic policy the Youth Symphony presents a premiere by an emerging composer on every program. What major professional orchestra can match that commitment to new music?
The work here was the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, composed last year by Mr. Itoh, who is about to receive his bachelor's degree from the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston. The soloists were the members of the adventurous Shanghai Quartet.
Just seconds after starting, Mr. Haas stopped the performance because a cellphone had gone off in the hall. The work's opening is slow, soft and mysterious: over a tremulous pedal tone, a series of rising sustained pitches slowly emerges, each note initiated by an urgent rhythmic figure. The astringent harmony of stacked-up sustained tones is meant to hover with quiet intensity, and the cellphone ruined the effect. To his credit, Mr. Haas waited for quiet, then began again.
The 12-minute concerto is written in one continuous movement with three distinct sections. After the deftly orchestrated slow introduction, the instruments of the string quartet enter one at a time with frenetic flourishes that shoot up the scale, which sets the restless first section in motion. In the slow central episode, Mr. Itoh shows an ear for writing thick, pungent chords bursting with notes. In its impressionistic colorings, the bracing concluding section sounds like updated Ravel, but in a brashly youthful and fresh way.
The Mahler work is both a four-movement symphony in the classical tradition and a volatile outpouring filled with evocations of pastoral scenes (complete with cowbells), the murky cosmos, distant churchly chorales and, by the end, pummeling strokes of fate. If some of the tragedy buried in this score eluded these young players, they certainly identified with the music's raging hormonal confusions.
For every fleeting moment of unpolished execution, there were whole passages of brassy exuberance — or visceral power, unerring ensemble or, in the wistful Andante, disarming tenderness. The musicians seemed to know this score intimately. And Mr. Haas conducted it from memory, winning enthusiastic applause from his hard-working players during a long ovation.