Music Review: The New York String Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

December 26th, 2012

“The modern shunning of applause between movements is one of the more tired and unnatural conventions of the classical music world,” Vivien Schweitzer rightly observed in a recent concert review in The New York Times.

Loud shushing, after all, is more disruptive than some clapping could ever be. And besides covering up the awful coughing fits that usually fill the silence, applause is, as Ms. Schweitzer wrote, a “natural reaction,” one that often comes more from sheer pleasure than from ignorance.

On Monday evening at Carnegie Hall the youthful New York String Orchestra played its annual Christmas Eve concert under its director, the violinist and conductor Jaime Laredo. There was applause after every one of the movements of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat (Op. 19) and Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D.

Thankfully no one quieted anyone, and no one could fairly argue with the warm reaction, full of justifiable pride and joy in a stage full of talented young performers.

Each year the orchestra, which was founded in 1969, draws new members from competitive auditions. This year the roster featured 62 young artists, ages 15 to 22, from across the United States and Canada. The musicians participate in 10 days of orchestral and chamber-music coaching and rehearsals that culminate in two concerts at Carnegie Hall.

Featuring Mozart’s overture to “La Clemenza di Tito” in addition to the Beethoven concerto and the Haydn symphony, the Christmas Eve show was cozy and compact, beginning at 7 p.m. and ending just after 8. At first glance it seemed like a random hit parade. (The orchestra’s programming, it must be said, is almost without exception discouragingly and unnecessarily old-fashioned.)

But the program was actually quite tight. The three works were written only a few years apart: Beethoven’s concerto in the late 1780s, with revisions in the mid-1790s, Mozart’s “Clemenza” in 1791 and the Haydn in 1795.

History has sometimes flattened these three crucial figures into a simple progression: Haydn begat Mozart begat Beethoven. But Monday’s selection complicated the standard narrative. “La Clemenza di Tito,” despite being one of Mozart’s final operas, is a self-conscious throwback to the traditions of opera seria. Beethoven, in this sparkling, calm early concerto, also looks backward, toward Mozartian Classicism, while Haydn’s final symphony experiments with thrillingly strange, proto-Romantic harmonic wanderings.

The orchestra brought grandeur to those wanderings in the symphony’s slow second movement and both delicacy and swing to the folk-song echoes in the finale. The soloist in the Beethoven concerto, Jonathan Biss, was smooth and subtle when the orchestra returned after his first-movement cadenza, but strangely muted elsewhere. Finest of all, perhaps, was the briefest: the Mozart overture, warm and propulsive, with dreamy colors.

The New York String Orchestra plays a different program on Friday evening at Carnegie Hall, (212) 247-7800, carnegiehall.org.

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