This afternoon the Juilliard Orchestra, conducted by James Conlon (also conducting An American Tragedy at the Met these days), performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 at Carnegie Hall (program details here). What a fabulous performance! The sustained cheers and standing ovation at the end were well deserved, and not just the result of probably the majority of the audience being friends, relatives, and teachers of the performers, and some of the rest of us being former Juilliard students.
This is the top orchestra at one of America’s top conservatories, and they sound better than some professional orchestras, especially in the depth of quality of the string sections. It’s the string sections in second and third tier full-time orchestras that can be problematic, with weaker players remaining from the days in which the orchestra was not full-time. I won’t name names, but this is certainly the case in one midwestern orchestra I hear quite often.
Despite being a “student” ensemble, many of the orchestra’s members are fine, professional artists. William Harvey, whom I’ve known since he was in elementary school, I think, is a graduate violinist at Juilliard and was sitting third chair in the first violins. He has a technical command of the violin equal to just about any full-time professional violinist I know.
The orchestra has tremendous technical precision, and all the wind and brass solos where on major-orchestra level. Particularly outstanding was the back-of-the-hall trumpet solo, and the concertmaster solos. Conlon brought lovely nuance to the lyrical passages, and there was tremendous energy and volume when the orchestra thundered as only Mahler can thunder an orchestra. At times, the brass seemed overpowering, at least from my second-tier center box seat (it was great to sit in one of the best and usually most expensive seats in Carnegie Hall for only $25).
It was certainly very stereotypically American orchestra playing at its best: precise, clear, muscular, and loud. Had this been a professional orchestra, I might be kvetching about wanting a warmer and more nuanced performance. But these are kids, incredible kids, and their playing was genuinely moving as well as awe-inspiring. I’ve reached that age (47) where I get reassured when I see/hear young people do well, especially now that I’ve gotten over not being a young person myself any more.
Juilliard alum Jane Gilbert was the wonderful mezzo-soprano, and Juilliard Choral Union and Brooklyn Youth Chorus (the latter singing from memory) were superb.
There was just one sad thought as I made my way back out into the cold streets of New York. These young men and women have devoted their lives to their art, and many of their families have made great sacrifices to enable them to study. It takes extraordinary commitment and discipline over many years to accomplish what each of them has accomplished. What are they going to do for a living? Some of them will get the positions in full-time orchestras each of them deserve. Most of them won’t, because there just aren’t that many jobs, and all the experts say the market for classical musicians is going to contnue to get worse.
Well, being an artist has never been about having good prospects for financial security. It’s a calling. More important than financial security to an artist is having artistic outlets. A lot of these players, and those that come after them, are going to discover that they are all dressed up with not many places to go, and that this may be the greatest orchestra they’ll ever play in. That’s what’s sad.