Both the “Eroica” Symphony (No. 3) of Ludwig van Beethoven and the Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky famously caused much consternation among contemporary musicians and audiences. Among the many negative criticisms initially lavished upon these works was the idea that each, in its own way, was too difficult, busting the chops of players and shattering the ears of listeners.
Times, tastes, and training have all changed, of course; yet the notion that an orchestra comprising almost entirely underage players would attempt either of these works is still remarkable. The audience that nearly filled Symphony Hall this past Sunday afternoon heard what was most likely one of the most ambitious programs of any young musicians’ orchestra: The Boston Youth Symphony under the baton of Federico Cortese chose to present both these pieces on the same program.
The Beethoven was played quite well from a technical standpoint. All the musicians had a clear command of their notes, the tempi were appropriate and steady, and there was plenty of dynamic contrast. The performance as a whole was very lyrical; often too lyrical, in fact. The Third Symphony is a moody work, quirky in its counterpoint and often epileptic in its phrasing. Cortese, however, seemed to want to smooth out those wonderfully jagged edges: the first movement was lovely, but too polite; the second was somber, but not rhythmically biting to be truly anguished; the third was sprightly, but not quite as raw as it should be. Oddly enough, the last movement, musically the most challenging, was also the most successful. Cortese managed to give what amounts to a rag-tag collection of variations a marvelous cohesion and flow, an accomplishment that has often eluded even some of the biggest names in conducting.
If the Eroica is challenging, The Rite of Spring is absolutely daunting. The syncopations and polyrhythms alone are enough to keep an instrumentalist up at night, (practicing or weeping), not mention the technical gymnastics that nearly every player is required to negotiate. It is therefore hardly surprising that these young people sounded somewhat hesitant in their playing, rarely able to bring out the true power and savagery that this astonishing work requires. Nonetheless, the performance was sonically well-balanced, each section played strongly and with confidence, and the overall energy was high.
In addition to the two main works on the program, the Junior Repertory Orchestra, a group of very young musicians under Adrian Slywotzky, offered a lovely, heartfelt performance of Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia. Also, the Repertory Orchestra under Joel Bard performed a technically sound, solidly driven rendition of the overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. If the frequent and sudden changes in extreme moods that characterize this work seemed a bit beyond the players, no matter: once they have a few more years of their own destinies tucked under their musical belts, they should do just fine.
Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.