Everything has its beginning. Many readers of this website (certainly I am among these numbers) will remember — perhaps fondly, even — the hints of a life-long love affair with music and the arts that were sparked during the long hours in practice rooms, the early morning orchestra rehearsals, and the uncomfortable carpools to distant performance venues. More important than reminding us of the humble beginnings of our own grand romances, the performances on the afternoon of Sunday, October 23 by the orchestras that comprise the Boston Youth Symphonies in Boston’s Symphony Hall celebrated the beginnings of the musical lives of a new group of musicians with works by Tchaikovsky, Bartók, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven in the inaugural concert of the BYSO’s 54th season.
Most striking about each of one of the three ensembles that performed on Sunday was the sophisticated approach taken to unmodified and unabridged standards of the genre. To wit: Adrian Slywotzky led the Junior Repertory Orchestra in a performance of the overture from Mendelssohn’s incidental music for Jean Racine’s Athalia (Op. 74). The work is difficult, requiring much from each of the respective sections of the orchestra. Members of the ensemble were up to the challenge; the overture leapt to life with the vivid colors of racing strings that remained attentive to Slywotzky’s hair-raising tempi while illustrating Mendelssohn’s dramatic score. Of particular note was excellent work done by the brass section in the opening chorale section of the work, a difficult passage by any criterion; the young brass section maintained a steady and polished tone throughout.Mark Miller led The Repertory Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. There’s much to listen to here, and much to learn. The work is one of different colors and textures — a melancholy haze in the beginning that extends into violent motives, short marches and — ultimately — the famous, lugubrious love theme. As with the Junior Repertory Orchestra, the Repertory Orchestra performers approached the work with a steady diligence and commitment that culminated in a vivid picture. Miller showcased the ensemble’s precision and dynamism, easily transitioning from uncertainty to bombast and practically everything in-between with a grace and fluidity that never betrayed the considerable technical challenges of Tchaikovsky’s overture.
Two other works, the suite from Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin (Op. 19, Sz. 73) and Beethoven’s 6th symphony (the “Pastoral,” Op. 68) were performed by the most senior of the three ensembles, the Boston Youth Symphony. These works are difficult, and it is important to note (many apologies if it sounds patronizing) that Music Director Federico Cortese’s guidance of the Youth Symphony expected no less than the attention and abilities of a professional ensemble. Bartók’s work is a spare and difficult one, written for a darkly funny pantomime about a Chinese Mandarin man who will not die despite the best efforts of his murderers. The Boston Youth Symphony rose to the challenge of Bartók’s technically difficult score, adorned with treacherous tonalities, uncomfortable rhythmic motifs, and ultimately raucous folk melodies; instead of a deep consternation about the suite’s technical challenges, inherent to Sunday’s performance of this work was an ebullient enthusiasm of an ensemble not only engaged in sounds of traffic that open the piece and thoroughly enjoying the folk song that ends it.
It’s a fraught moment: as an audience member, it is a comforting experience listening to Beethoven’s “Pastoral,” the standard of the repertoire, but it’s also, for the most part, probably the first major exposure most of the musicians on the stage have had to the work. Cortese’s treatment was broad and indulgent, sparing no expense when it came to the calamitous storm movement and imbuing the song of the shepherds’ thanks in the fifth movement with perhaps over-wrought bravura. The ultimate effect was dramatic read of Beethoven’s proposed tone-poem and certainly a memorable performance, no matter how many times either audience or performers have been exposed to the work.
By its very nature, it is difficult to ignore the perspective of the conductor and the performers in Sunday’s concert. It is a difficult task, this training of young musicians to the level of musicianship and professionalism that the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras provide, and the ensemble somehow proves that there is a virtue to expecting professional performances of unadulterated and unsimplified music from these talented burgeoning musicians. To be sure, these challenges are ultimately in service of both audience and performer. From the perspective of the performer, concerts like these mark the beginnings of a lifetime of music, an introduction to the language of the classical world and an exciting world of musical thought. From our perspective of an audience member, however, we are privileged not only to be able to hear these concerts, but, in what is almost certainly more important, to witness these wonderful beginnings.