by Alan Kozinn
Ryan McAdams leading the New York Youth Symphony in a program that included Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3.
Because the New York Youth Symphony is a student ensemble that draws on musicians ranging in age from 12 to 22, it can be easy to forget, from season to season, just how good it is. But its Carnegie Hall concerts have often been startling. Its programs are built around repertory cornerstones, which these musicians appear not to find daunting, and each concert includes the premiere of a commissioned work as well. The performance level is almost always what you would expect from a full-time, professional adult orchestra, and this group outshines some of the adult ensembles that parade across New York stages night after night.
At Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon, the orchestra’s music director, Ryan McAdams, put his young players in what could have been an unforgiving spotlight. Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3, for example, in which currents of dark, menacing power and heroic fortitude are intertwined, makes hefty demands on an ensemble’s energy and unity. Listeners could quibble about Mr. McAdams’s decision to have the trumpet calls played onstage rather than off, but this was an electrifying reading, and the vigorous, magnificently polished string playing in the final section of the score made any such reservations seem beside the point.
Ryan Gallagher’s “Strife” (2008) challenged the musicians’ flexibility —conceptual as well as technical— by moving briskly (at times precipitately) between thorny, dissonant passages and soft-edged lyrical ones. But they seemed as much at home in this changeable score as in the Beethoven; the percussion, brass and woodwind sections clearly relished the attention Mr. Gallagher gave them.
So did Haochen Zhang, an 18-year-old pianist, who contributed a deft, assertive account of the work’s concertolike solo line. He also gave a graceful, energized performance of Mozart’s Concerto No. 20 in D minor and played an elaborate set of variations on a Chinese folk theme as an encore.
After the intermission, Mr. McAdams conducted a sharply articulated, thoughtfully shaped performance of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” It was the kind of reading that made a listener prize the details of Ravel’s orchestration more than ever, both as a textbook demonstration of orchestral color and for giving this already vivid piano score a measure of depth and shading that Mussorgsky could never have achieved. Mr. McAdams’s contribution here was an emphasis on the music’s extremes of clarity and mystery, delicacy and grandeur.
This being the first concert of the season (the orchestra’s 46th), the music came with a bit of speechifying. Philip Glass, not a frequent speaker at events of this kind, presented the Theodore L. Kesselman Award for Arts Education to the composer Francis Thorne, but first spoke about the inspiring mission of orchestras like the youth symphony. Mr. Thorne was more circumspect. Taking the award, he said only, “As Antony said to Cleopatra, I have not come to talk.”