The gifted, hard-working and game musicians of the New York Youth Symphony have played some formidable scores over the years, evenMahler’s mighty Sixth Symphony. In some ways, though, Copland’s Symphony No. 3 is harder to pull off in performance than many pieces that may sound a lot more difficult.
Moment to moment, this 42-minute score is captivating. But in striving for symphonic breadth, Copland faltered at something for which he usually had flawless instincts: musical structure.
The New York Youth Symphony earned my special respect on Sunday afternoon for its cogent, shapely performance of Copland’s Third Symphony at Carnegie Hall, conducted by the ensemble’s dynamic music director, Joshua Gersen, in a program that concluded this essential orchestra’s 51st season. Mr. Gersen, over all, drew incisive, cohesive and colorful playing from the dedicated musicians, who range in age from 12 to 22.
Copland was commissioned to write this piece by Serge Koussevitzky, who gave the premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1946. The Copland of the ballet score “Appalachian Spring,” which had had its premiere in 1944, is very evident in the musical language of the Third Symphony. But in writing an ambitious symphony for a major orchestra, Copland fell under the spell of Mahler and Shostakovich. At times, the symphony seems uncertain, padded or pumped up. The slow third movement, for example, is tender and wistful, with wide-spaced harmonies, plaintive melodic writing and episodes of restless agitation. Whether the music comes across as searching or meandering depends upon the performance.
This one had that movement seeming ruminative, yes, but deliberately so. The first movement, with its bold, jagged theme played in string proclamations with woodwind chorales and bursts of brass, was excellent. The scherzo-like second movement had incisive attack and rhythmic vitality. To open the final movement, Copland borrowed his own “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The brass flourishes in this well-known music are exposed, and these players bobbled a few moments. It didn’t matter. The stirring grandeur came through, and the playing of the expansive, episodic movement was confident and full of character.
This all-American program opened with Harrison Hollingsworth, the orchestra’s assistant conductor, leading a lively account of Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture. With Mr. Gersen conducting, the brilliant young violinist Benjamin Beilman was the excellent soloist in Barber’s ravishing, Neo-Romantic 1939 Violin Concerto. He brought dark chocolate sound and lyricism to his rhapsodic playing and compellingly dispatched the breathless, perpetual-motion finale.
To its credit, every New York Youth Symphony program at Carnegie Hall features the premiere of a commissioned work by an emerging composer. On this occasion, the new piece was Conrad Winslow’s “All Decays,” a short, compelling orchestral essay. The piece is like a series of overlapping musical events in the process of disintegration: Brass riffs fragment; melodic lines turn diffuse; piercing sustained harmonies morph into hazy clusters; pulsing rhythms falter and fade.
The composer, acknowledging the applause from a hall clearly dotted with family members of the players, looked rightly proud.