Ryan McAdams, the orchestra’s 28-year old conductor, framed this first program of the season with a pair of big display pieces, Strauss’s “Don Juan” and Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” Both demand stamina and agility from the players as well as a conductor with an interpretive imagination strong enough to bring to life the visual imagery within these scores and the discipline to keep them from devolving into streams of effects.
Mr. McAdams drew driven, impassioned playing from the ensemble in Strauss’s dramatic introduction, and painted the long second love scene in languid, supple tempos and soft hues, with fine playing from every section. In the Respighi, the young musicians handled extremes deftly: “The Pines of the Appian Way” dazzled, thanks to finely polished woodwind and brass playing, and “Pines Near a Catacomb” benefited from eerily dark string playing and gracefully turned solo lines, most notably Anthony Limoncelli’s offstage trumpet solo.
Between the Strauss and the Respighi, Mr. McAdams led two works in which Anthony McGill, the Metropolitan Opera’s principal clarinetist, was the soloist. In the first, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, Mr. McGill played the outer movements with spirited elegance and offered an exquisitely soulful rendering of the Adagio.
The clarinet was also the protagonist, more or less, in Robert Honstein’s “Verge” (2010), a 10-minute work composed for the occasion. Mr. Honstein wrote the piece while spending the summer at Lake Champlain and preparing to move to Brooklyn with uncertain prospects. The tensions and doubts fostered by that uncertainty take form in roiling, insistent orchestral figuration. But there are lakeside reveries too, and Mr. Honstein linked these extremes with concise clarinet figures that Mr. McGill played with a fluid assertiveness.
After intermission Kurt Masur, the former music director of the New York Philharmonic, presented the youth symphony’s Theodore L. Kesselman Award for Arts Education to Marta Casals Istomin, who, in a long career, was the founder of the Casals Festival and president of both the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Manhattan School of Music.