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Conductor David Robertson leads violin soloist Gil Shaham and the National Youth Orchestra of the USA in an ‘inspiring’ concert Thursday at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall.

LENOX -- It’s no surprise to followers of the Tanglewood Music Center and Boston University Tanglewood Institute orchestras that if you listen to a good youth orchestra with your eyes closed, you can think you’re hearing pros.

So it was when the National Youth Orchestra of the USA, ages 16 to 19, came to Tanglewood Thursday night under the sponsorship of Carnegie Hall. For those who despair of youth and the future of classical music, the program was evidence that there’s hope for the human race yet. This was not just impressive. It was inspiring.

It was also an Event. The 120 players came uniformly dressed in hot orange pants and black blazers, with orange- and black-striped sneakers to match. Judging by the whoops and screams that emanated from the audience that filled Ozawa Hall and the lawn behind, many families and friends had traveled from afar to show support. Excitement teemed in the players’ ranks.

Conductor David Robertson and violin soloist Gil Shaham (they’re brothers-in-law) inspired the players, who inspired them in turn. They wore the emblematic sneakers with their traditional black tailcoats. Somewhere in the mass that filled the stage -- only about 100 players seemed to appear at any one time -- was bassist Harrison Dilthey of North Adams.

Tanglewood was the second stop of eight on a coast-to-coast tour in the organization’s second summer season.


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In two weeks of rehearsal, coaches, and then Robertson, had molded the 120 students, who come from 35 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, into a versatile, unified voice.

The sound that filled Ozawa Hall was sometimes overwhelming, but when the long program ended with the gonging "Great Gate" climax of the Mussorgsky / Ravel "Pictures at an Exhibition," the thrill was enormous. Solos from within the orchestra all night were exemplary. The occasional flubs counted for nothing.

The program opened -- nod to American music, nod to Tanglewood -- with the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s "West Side Story." The performance was a blast in more than the sonic sense. The finger-snapping rhythms, the raucous fight scenes and the swooning love tunes sounded like the young people’s music it actually is.

Shaham was soloist in Britten’s war-shadowed, unduly neglected Violin Concerto (a seemingly odd choice for a celebratory trip, but never mind). The work, as cellist Bihn Park of Haverford, Pa., explained in a talk from the stage, is tortured and grieving but deeply human. The collaboration between soloist and orchestra turned it into a powerful personal testament.

What is an Event without a commission and premiere? On this occasion, the piece was "Radial Play," a five-minute, multi-layered orchestral showpiece by Samuel Adams, son of composer ("Nixon in China") John Adams. It was brilliantly played.

And in the "Pictures" finale, Robertson kept the old warhorse moving briskly along in a richly colored, acutely characterized performance, showing why its appeal endures.

These 120 musicians gather, learn, play and tour with all expenses paid through Carnegie Hall patronage. Last year’s aggregation went to Russia, next year’s goes to China. Lucky them. Lucky us.