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A Moment to Be Sentimental, but Not Mushy

11.26.12
Cho-Liang Lin
The New York Times

By Zachary Woolfe

New York Youth Symphony at Carnegie Hall

The most moving part of the New York Youth Symphony’s concert on Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall came after the music had ended.

The final note of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony faded, thunderous applause began, and the orchestra, made up of musicians ages 12 to 22, rose for a bow.

That was the first time it was obvious that two adult artists had joined the mix. The violinists Cho-Liang Lin and Michelle Kim, who had been featured as soloists earlier in the afternoon, had sneaked in for the Dvorak. They were tucked away in a spot that must have been unfamiliar for both of them: the back of the violin section.

That these well-respected, busy musicians had not rushed out of Carnegie Hall after playing their solos attests to the good will built over the decades by the orchestra, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season. Mr. Lin, after all, was once (1976-77, to be exact) its concertmaster.

Since the orchestra’s early days, its offerings have expanded from symphonic music into the chamber and jazz repertories. There are workshops in conducting and composition, as well as the invaluable First Music program, which has commissioned works from more than 100 emerging composers since 1984. The orchestra now even sponsors a First Art competition for young visual artists.

The ensemble’s concerts clearly have an element of the sentimental — “I remember when he played the cello in his diapers” was a representative overheard comment — but the quality of the playing is excellent. I had heard the New York Philharmonic play Dvorak’s “New World” with brisk panache two days before and was, to be honest, dreading the comparison.

But the youth symphony, alert and with a firm foundation in its clean, clear string sound, more than held its own. Conducted by its new music director, Joshua Gersen, it was precise in attack in the first movement and, aside from hiccups in the brasses, focused later on. I preferred Devin Hinzo’s tender, dynamically nuanced English horn solo in the Largo to the stiffer one at the Philharmonic.

The program for this anniversary celebration was unexceptional. The opening number, Shostakovich’s bustling “Festive Overture,” seemed chosen primarily to release some jitters among the musicians. Ludwig Maurer’s intermittently charming Sinfonia Concertante for Four Violins in A featured eloquent work from Mr. Lin, Ms. Kim and the orchestra’s concertmaster, Samuel Katz, but was most memorable for the sweet-toned playing of the fourth and youngest violinist: Alice Ivy-Pemberton, 15.

But there is always interest in the orchestra’s new commissions from young composers. “Universal at Midnight,” by Gabriel Zucker, suavely combined a symphony orchestra and a jazz band, beginning with a haunting orchestral hush and passing a gentle theme through the jazz soloists.

It was a nocturne out of early Bernstein or introspective Sinatra: classic-sounding but a little staid. Mr. Zucker’s influences, to judge from the epigraphs for this piece, go from Charles Ives to Wilco. I wish “Universal at Midnight” had even more of that range and spirit of experimentation.