Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Youth Orchestra of the Americas - Bernstein, Rachmaninoff & Beethoven - 08/07/09

Guest Conductor: Benjamin Zander
Bernstein: Overture to Candide
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 - Gabriela Montero
Beethoven: Symphony No 5 in C Minor

To break the enveloping hot lull of summer, how about a two-city concert mini-marathon in August? The ever-popular Mostly Mozart Festival opened last week at the Lincoln Center, and it is the perfect excuse for a long weekend in the Big Apple. As luck would have it, I was able to warm up my ears last night in the frigidly cold Strathmore music center with a crowd-pleasing performance by the wonderful concept that is the Youth Orchestra of the Americas (YOA). Founded in 2001 and boasting no less than Placido Domingo as its artistic director, it comes into life every year thanks to 100 rigorously selected music students aged between 18 and 28. This year, they represented 21 countries of the American continent, and ended their two-week intensive residency and three-week whirlwind American tour in our nation's capital. Non-plussed by a 17-hour bus ride from Canada, they brought boundless energy and infectious joie de vivre to the younger than usual audience.

After a brief introduction and the obligatory thanks to the dignitaries in the hall, audience-friendly English conductor Benjamin Zander led the more than ready orchestra into a spirited overture to Candide. I'm not a huge fan, but it did set the right mood. If nothing else, the kids could play.
The perfect vehicle for romantic adolescent longing, Ramaninoff's famed piano concerto No 2 received a technically respectful and emotionally committed treatment in the hands of the young and fast-rising Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero. The somber, lonely eight chords notes were quickly swept up by the discreetly restless strings and the music securely went on and on all the way to the all-encompassing powerful conclusion, with a lovely passage featuring wistful flute and clarinet. It is an easily accessible yet deeply moving piece than never fails to get to its audience. It sure hit the right spot yesterday, and an enthusiastic standing ovation whole-heartedly thanked the beaming soloist. Refreshingly wearing a casual, slightly psychedelic outfit, a welcome change from the over-stuffy gowns so often observed, she has no doubt a long career ahead of her.
Her two encores were delightful surprises: an improvisation on Mozart's Laci darem la mano from Don Giovanni, requested by an audience member, and a fun Latin American music-inspired medley featuring short excerpts of Ravel's Bolero and Carmen's trademark aria, initiated by one of the cellists. Clearly revelling in her natural element that is spontaneous improvisation, she graciously provided us with the unquestionable highlight of the evening.
Beethoven's fifth symphony needs no introduction, thanks mostly to its own introduction, and under the baton of maestro Zander, who had decided to stick to the shock-and-awe aspect of Beethoven's less commonly used fast-tempo markings, the famous four-note motive mightily resounded in all its dark splendor. And that was just the beginning. As promised, the orchestra played this "dangerous music dangerously", and even the slower passages were flying by at breakneck speed. The eager musicians did manage to sustain the unforgiving pace, with a special mention for the four awe-inspiring double basses during the Scherzo, and this thrilling, occasionally a bit messy, but always exhilarating, joy ride left the audience, and probably the orchestra, utterly exhausted when that was all over. Talk about revolutionary music!

But the party was apparently just starting, and instead of one or two encores, the orchestra performed four more very distinct and engaging works. Ah, the spirit of youth! The first one was a boisterous Stars and Stripes Forever, complete with twirling cellos and audience joining in.
The second piece was Danzon No 2 by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez, sizzling with languorous rhythms, to which the black-clad Juan Carlos Rincones dancers added alluring moves, although from my seat I couldn't see much. The score, however, was an attractive tribute to Latin American music.
Back on more traditional ground and channeling Benjamin Zanger's English roots, "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations was an eerily soaring call to, Zanger stated, the human being in all of us. Sweepingly lush without falling into easy sentimentality or overblown pomposity, it had a remarkably calming effect after all the preceding agitation.
We knew something was still brewing when some of the young women unfolded colorful scarves and some of the young men took off their formal black jackets and white shirts to reveal colorful tee-shirts. Following the tempo of the again groovy music and demonstrating spontaneous dancing skills just as impressive as their musical skills, some of them even jumped off the stage and danced in the hall, mingling with audience members. The ones still playing on the stage were going all out connecting with their native roots, twirling the double basses, whole string sections rising and sitting back down in unison, the conductor even briefly taking over an abandonned cello, all finally ending the festivities with a chaotically joyful celebration.

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