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Youth Has Its Triumphant Day

January 20, 2009

Contrary to my apprehension, Sunday’s festival of youth orchestras went smoothly in Davies Symphony Hall, via a grand display of musical talent around Northern California. Under the banner "Bay of Hope 2009," the concert presented six youth orchestras playing major and often virtuoso music by six composers of the 19th and 20th centuries. As an additional touch, the proceeds from the concert have been donated to support homeless-youth programs.
After a few remarks by master of ceremonies Wendy Tokuda of KPIX-TV, the afternoon began with Leo Eylar conducting the California Youth Symphony in Dvořák's Carnival Overture, Op. 92. It was followed by the Oakland Youth Orchestra under Bryan Nies in Sir Malcolm Arnold's movements from the ballet Solitaire, and then by Mitchell Sardou Klein leading the Peninsula Youth Orchestra in Gwyneth Walker's three-movement Concert Suite.

San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra

Following intermission, we heard Benjamin Shwartz conduct the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra in "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" from Wagner's Die Götterdämmerung, before David Ramadanoff conducted the Young People's Symphony Orchestra in the second and fourth movements of Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber.

The afternoon was rounded off with Michael Neumann leading the Sacramento Youth Symphony in the Finale of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, Op. 47. As a final romp, Ramadanoff conducted Shostakovich's Festival Overture, Op. 96, with an orchestra made up of the best musicians of the five out-of-town orchestras.

Naturally, some performances were finer than others, yet the general level achieved remarkable musicianship on all sides. The occasional nervous blooper was heard here and there, or an even less frequent instance of smudgy ensemble, but those were things rare and minor.
Masterful Playing
Dvořák's Carnival Overture is no snap to pull off, for it demands much in the way of virtuoso playing, especially from the strings and horns. Yet the CYO pulled it off masterfully with its large ensemble. Amazingly, it seats no fewer than 20 first violins. The orchestra played brilliantly and with a keen feeling for the composer's style. This I consider semimiraculous. Hats off to conductor Eylar.

Arnold's pieces were not originally intended as a ballet at all, but merely conceived as a series of symphonic dances. Those formed his two collections of English Dances from 1951 and 1952. It was choreographer Kenneth MacMillan who corralled them into the ballet Solitaire.

The five movements on offer Sunday were named simply Grazioso, Vivace, Sarabande, Polka, and Con Brio. All are easygoing, if not necessarily easy to play, but the Oaklanders breezed through them with nary a hint of strain. They also managed to bring a touch of seriousness to the music, rather than treating it as just commonplace pops music.

Walker, born in Vermont in 1947, has largely been known for her choral compositions, which are numerous. Her 1994 Concert Suite definitely is pops music, using elements of jazz and Latin American music heavy with percussion effects. Conductor Mitchell Sardou Klein managed this well, except that the percussionists tended to overplay their dynamic levels. Much of the time, the music sounded like rather watered-down Bernstein, lacking any genuine individuality.

When the SFS Youth Orchestra programmed "Rhine Journey" earlier this season, I was not entirely impressed. But boy, they sure have combed its hair and pressed its shirt for this outing. The end result was a thrilling performance, one that even professionals would be proud to call their own.

The dangerous exposed passages — not least, that demanding solo horn-call — soared. Conductor Shwartz must have worked the piece into shape with outstanding verve, or maybe a big bullwhip. The orchestra even managed to produce the necessary rounded, blended Wagnerian brass sound. Bravo, all.
No Fearing a Showpiece
Berkeley's 73-year-old Young People's Symphony is the oldest such organization in California, and the second oldest in the country. Even so, I was a bit startled to think that it could deal with Hindemith's orchestral showpiece, especially since Ramadanoff was tackling the two most difficult movements: the "Turandot Scherzo" and the final March.

It turned out that the young musicians seemed to revel in the Chinese-based Scherzo, though the brass surprisingly sounded a tad scrappy during the jazzy fugue at its center. On the whole, however, the YPS played an admirably rowdy version of Hindemith's crowd-pleaser.

Of course, when it comes to crowd-pleasers, the finale of Shostakovich's mildly vulgar Fifth Symphony always creates a storm of applause. It's relatively easy to play, at least compared to the Dvořák, Wagner, and Hindemith of the afternoon. Thus the Sacramento Youth Orchestra musicians, conducted by Michael Neuman, could let their hair down and blast away. You could see them all having a whale of a good time, and that enthusiasm proved infectious to all. I've rarely applauded this piece more enthusiastically, myself.

The Shostakovich "Festive Overture" was tossed off on short notice for the Bolshoi Theater. Any reasonably competent composer could pull that off, and great ones — like Rossini — often do that terribly well. But merely letting the pencil fly doesn't always produce good results.

Shostakovich stacked his occasion piece a bit by using a large orchestration, plus an extra brass choir. On Sunday the choir was placed balcony-left alongside the orchestra. The material of the piece, melodic and otherwise, amounts to no more than a grab bag of cliches, all of which are well past their sell dates. The score, though, is just noisy enough that most audiences don't seem to mind. I don't think this Overture is Shostakovich's worst orchestral piece, but it certainly makes the top three.

Almost as impressive as the performance was the smooth organization of the event. After all, keeping things moving along with something like 600 teens and their instruments backstage amounted to real genius. One trick was using the always gracious and charming Tokuda, who as one orchestra left and the next wafted in would interview the conductor to follow. Those interviews were kept rather brief, to the point, and informative ... but then, they had a pro in charge.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.