The National Youth Orchestra of the USA is no conventional band camp – hosted at Carnegie Hall every summer, the country’s most talented teenagers embark this year on a summer trip of a lifetime, touring from Boston and New York to London, Berlin, Edinburgh, Hamburg and Amsterdam. Under the watchful tutelage of Sir Antonio Pappano, their concert at the BBC Proms presented an impressive programme capped by a performance of Strauss’ demanding Alpine Symphony.

Joyce DiDonato, Antonio Pappano and the NYO-USA
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Alongside the hundred or so players, NYO-USA commissions works from apprentice composers each year for its summer tour. Benjamin Beckman’s Occidentalis is a work of uncommon maturity, blending the vernacular influences of Aaron Copland and William Bolcom with the extended orchestral palette of Boulez or Messiaen. Beckman shows a particular aptitude for orchestral colour, with slashing brass and woodwind flourishes alongside cascades of string and percussion in striking juxtaposition. What was most impressive was the clarity of the writing even in spite of the Strauss-sized orchestra; Beckman more than stands his own alongside master orchestrators such as Berlioz and Strauss.

The orchestra was joined by star mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato for Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été, an atmospheric musing on love and loss. Originally composed for voice and piano, the song cycle is more commonly performed in the composer’s orchestral arrangement. Though the orchestral forces are modest by Berlioz’s standards, the orchestral writing is a marvel of understatement, and Pappano and his orchestra achieved some of the most ravishing playing of the afternoon. In contrast to the blazing virtuosity of Strauss, the wind and brass writing demands a different tonal palette altogether; the orchestral suggestions of wind and light and water of Théophile Gautier’s poetry were atmospherically conveyed.

DiDonato has long been associated with the works of Berlioz, having recently made a critically-acclaimed recording of Didon in Les Troyens and appearing in last year’s Proms as Cleopatra and Dido. DiDonato’s bright, slender mezzo has long been a ideal fit for French music, complete with an attractive flutter reminiscent of early recordings of French singers from the turn of the century. Her recent forays into Dido and Cleopatra have demonstrated that she is equally adept a tragédienne, with fierce dramatic instincts and a recently acquired warmth in her middle register. These contrasts were beautifully displayed in Berlioz’s song cycle, from the conversational flirtations of Villanelle and L’Île inconnue to the grand tragedy of Sur les lagunes. DiDonato’s famous breath control was displayed to full effect in a languorous reading of Le Spectre de la rose, matched by a glorious unfurling of lush sound from Pappano and the orchestra. However, everyone was at their best in the melancholic musings of Absence, achieving a radiant intimacy that made the vast Royal Albert Hall seem like the most intimate of salons.

Antonio Pappano conducts the NYO-USA
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Berlioz’s atmospheric shadings are worlds away from Strauss’ monumental Alpensinfonie, a 50-minute depiction of an Alpine ascent. Demanding enormous forces, Strauss’ writing demands the utmost virtuosity from every player onstage and off, and NYO-USA (with their counterparts from across the pond providing the offstage brass) gave an energetic and impressive account of the work. Pappano’s conception of the work is operatic rather than cerebral, making the most of the contrasts between the sinister opening and the blazing grandeur of the ascent to the summit. The storm was depicted with ferocious energy from all players, though the quieter moments by the waterfall (surely the most magical use of the celesta since The Nutcracker) and the serene descent into sunset could have used a touch more space in the cavernous hall. The orchestra proved up to Strauss’ virtuosic demands, with luxuriously smooth strings and agile winds. The brass section played with an accuracy and stamina that could rival some of the great orchestras of the world, with particularly commendable contributions from principal trumpet and horn. Pappano and the orchestra followed upon Strauss’ epic ascent with a richly understated account of Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations that sent the audience home with a smile and the assurance that the future of classical music is in the best possible hands.