The December sun struggled against the bitter cold Sunday afternoon as a stream of orderly but chilled patrons hurried through the doors of Carnegie Hall for the 48th annual exhibition of the New York Youth Symphony. Despite the frenetic activity of the teeming front lobby, we stood momentarily stunned by the potency of the cold, which had followed us in and which refused, for a few indecently long minutes, to leave and retreat back outside.
Upstairs, the velvet padding of the balcony balustrade was the only frame separating us from the scene below. In spite of their extreme youth — or perhaps because of it — the musicians onstage sat patient and relaxed, affected neither by their impressive surroundings nor by the crowd filtering in. As Samuel Katz, first violin and concertmaster, strode to the front of the stage, the crowd broke into applause, and the young violinist smiled graciously, bowing his head in a courtly gesture of thanks before leading the orchestra in their preliminary tuning. The conductor, Ryan McAdams, was himself not much older than the members of the symphony and brought an extraordinary energy to the stage as he bounded out to the conductor’s stand to tremendous applause. Then the music began.
The program kicked off with Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major. Following the intermission, the concert recommenced with Verge, a debut piece from contemporary composer Robert Honstein, which was incorporated into the program as part of its First Music series. Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome concluded the event with an exuberant, jump-to-your-feet finale.
The second movement of the clarinet concerto and the final narrative of the Respighi piece were, for me, the clear standout performances of the afternoon. Yet, it was the juxtaposition of Honstein’s skillfully crafted narrative and the Mozart piece that resonated with me long after the final bows were taken. Anthony McGill, who was the soloist for both the Mozart and Honstein pieces, is the principal clarinetist for Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and performed for President Obama’s inaguration alongside Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and Gabriella Montero. McGill’s technical skill was evident in the fancy finger work of the concerto’s faster-paced Allegro movement, but the true magic, both of the piece and in the performance, lay in the Adagio and McGill’s ability to coax it to life. The sweet, soaring notes of the clarinet during this, one of Mozart’s final compositions before his death in 1791, seem to say, “Life is long. I know I made mistakes; I am at peace with them.” By contrast, the Honstein piece was replete with the anxiety of the young. Moments of melodic serenity ran headlong into dissonant chords, denying the listener the ability to relax into an easy, familiar pattern. Building upon new theme after new theme, the piece never fulfilled on its many promises of resolution, ending abruptly and with the sense that the listener had struggled up many a different route to reach the top of the mountain, only to realize he was suddenly staring off the edge of a cliff.
I loved it all. I loved the way one of the violinists glanced up a few times at us over her shoulder, the only crack in her otherwise impenetrable pre-performance facade; I loved how I could hear the conductor’s breath expelled in gusty exhalations as he urged on first one section, then another and another in an inexorable crescendo. Perhaps it’s too easy to get stuck on the astonishing fact that these world-class musicians aren’t old enough to drive, thereby failing to give them their due as artists of extraordinary talent. But it would be disingenuous to deny that a certain amount of charm and energy could not help but be added to the proceedings as a result of their youth; a certain bright-eyed regard for McAdams as the musicians released the final melancholy notes of a phrase; an extra element of careful attention paid to the turning of pages during a soloist’s piece; the flush of pleasure on a young cellist’s face as cries of “Bravo!” filled the sudden silence following that last note; the whooping cheer that escaped another musician when the trumpet soloist stood to gather his due applause.
The ovations having come to a reluctant close, we gathered our many layers of insulation and shuffled slowly back out onto the street, rather like a flock of penguins heading out into an antarctic twilight. One by one, nearly unnoticed, the young musicians emerged from the stage doors around the corner on 7th Avenue, looking cold and vaguely concerned as they searched the crowd for their parents. For a very few, this anonymity is a temporary thing; they will live to become well-known in their lifetime as artists and conductors and otherwise prominent names in the musical world. For others, their lives will be ones of quiet obscurity, of everyday successes and failures. For all, what path is to be theirs is unknown. Moreover, it’s a question that will, like Honsten’s piece, crescendo and decrescendo over and over again, and which will almost never resolve into a single, coherent chord. For now, as they say their goodbyes and drift off into the dwindling afternoon light, there is only the next thing — where is Mom? What’s for dinner? — and the distant promise of a lone clarinet that, somehow, everything will be alright.