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SF Symphony Youth Orchestra Conquers Europe

July 1, 2019

In a spectacular 16-day blitz of six European cities, including such major concert halls as the Berlin Philharmonie and the Vienna Musikverein, the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra is receiving exceptional audience acclaim, including standing ovations, which are not nearly as common there as in Davies Hall at home.

Wattis Foundation Music Director Christian Reif is leading some one hundred musicians of the Youth Orchestra on the tour, which started on June 23 in Copenhagen and will conclude on July 4 in Budapest.

The tour marks the end of the orchestra’s 2018–2019 season and of Reif’s three-year tenure. For musicians, who reach the high end of the 12–21 age range or have been with the orchestra longest, such as co-concertmasters Robert Chien, Isaac Park, and Roger Xia, this is also a kind of victory lap.

Following Saturday’s concert in Berlin, a rave review in Der Tagesspiegel called the performance “brilliant with a strong ensemble ... The opulent string section, in particular, was an indication that Christian Reif is an outstanding orchestra trainer. When he had the brass stand and the horns raise their bells during the finale of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony, listeners heard ‘maximum power’ that worked amazingly well.”

Praising the “exuberant brilliance” of soloist Nicola Benedetti in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the review noted that the work of “the flute [Anthony Lee], clarinet [Yijin Wang], and bassoon [Samuel Troxell] emerged colorfully from the orchestra.” The review also reported a response that’s unusual in Europe: “The audience applauded between the movements [of the concerto], which the conductor allowed, joining in himself.”

Among the many highlights of the tour — unscathed by one of worst heat waves in European history — was the June 26 performance in Hamburg’s now-celebrated Elbphilharmonie.

After a decade of struggle to realize the fairytale creation of Herzog & de Meuron (architects of the new de Young Museum and other prominent buildings around the world), and an historic cost overrun — allegedly over 900 percent — the €860 million (over $1 billion) hall is now among the world’s most eminent performance places.

SFS/YO violinist Sabrina Kim shares her experience:

As I walked into the hall, my eyes were immediately drawn to the vast, light-dotted ceiling and the layers of tiers. I noticed that several of my peers stopped to take in the hall as well, heads hinged back and eyes up to absorb the space.

The hall created an atmosphere in which time and space no longer existed. I felt that I could have been in a giant, magical shell roaming the ocean. The lights were pockets of stars seeping into the hall. The unique architecture was both unearthly and of the most natural form possible, a casual assembly of waves.

When we played, I could hear myself so clearly. From the perspective of a violinist, I noticed a crispness to the sound, opening me up to nuances I had never noticed before. To the German audience, there was a newness to us, the American youth. For us musicians, we were in a place of both historical importance and innovative music making. We wanted to make our mark in Hamburg and uphold SFS/YO’s standard of musical excellence.

Each piece was met with an uproar of applause, and after our Mahler, a standing ovation. This empowered me and my peers — in Hamburg, a place of unwavering musical importance, our music was appreciated. We were encouraged by the concertgoers and connected to each other by the sound we crafted, so focused and earnest.

Before the Berlin concert on Friday, Reif started rehearsal by warming up with Maurice Duruflé’s “Ubi Caritas,” the vocal work getting the young instrumentalists ready to play Tchaikovsky and Mahler.

As at the previous concerts, the July events — in Vienna and Budapest — will have the program of Detlev Glanert’s Prelude No. 1 from Three American Preludes, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto — with Benedetti as soloist — and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

In Hungary, where the state still provides some art subsidy, ticket prices for the concert range from $13 to $25. Austrian prices are also on the low side; the SFS/YO tickets run from $11 to $34 in historic, magnificent Musikverein.

Europe seems crowded with Bay Area musicians, notwithstanding those record-high temperatures:

Marin Youth Orchestra toured in Prague, Vienna, and Budapest, June 23–27;

— New Century Chamber Orchestra just returned from a June 17–27 concert tour of Europe, led by Daniel Hope and performing in Germany and Poland;

Berkeley Community Chorus & Orchestra is taking the Brahms Requiem to Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, and Stockholm, June 25–July 7;

— Ian Robertson’s San Francisco Boys Choir is taking off for Germany, July 3–10, to sing in Römhild, Eisenach, Leipzig, Herrnhut, and Berlin;

— Led by Valérie Sainte-Agathe, San Francisco Girls Chorus is touring England and Germany, July 18–29, giving concerts in Cambridge, Windsor, London, and Paris.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].