The estimable Celebrity Series of Boston brought a powerhouse ensemble of youthful performers aged 14 to 24 to Symphony Hall Friday April 20th, and those present were witness to amazing feats of virtuosity. On the podium was the famous pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, who has been more active in concert halls recently as a conductor. I had not seen Ashkenazy conduct before and was eager to see how he worked in that role. I had some experience with his interpretive powers with orchestras, however, as I have been very impressed with recordings he has made, in particular those of Rachmaninoff orchestral works such as The Isle of the Dead with the Concertgebouw.
On the podium, his movements appear a bit jerky, almost as if he were a marionette pulled upon by strings. My concern that this odd-appearing technique would not serve him well lasted all of 45 seconds. Though I had some trouble “reading” his directions (I was behind him, after all) his orchestra had no such issue at all. The opposite, in fact – they read him with such unanimity that any question of unusual technique was trivial.
The Orchestra’s informative descriptive note in the program reads in part:
The European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) unites Europe’s most talented young musicians under some of the world’s most famous conductors, in an orchestra that transcends cultural boundaries and performs all over the world to the highest international standards.
The orchestra is composed of up to 140 musicians who are drawn from all 27 member states of the European Union, from Finland in the north to Malta in the south, from Cyprus in the east to Portugal in the west…over 90% of alumni go on to successful careers in music.
The EUYO was founded in 1976 by Bostonian Joy Bryer and her husband Lionel, with a view to creating an ensemble that would represent the European ideal of a community working together to achieve peace and social and cultural understanding.
The concert began, appropriately, with a brisk reading of Aaron Copland’s 1938 An Outdoor Overture, a seldom-encountered and well-constructed gem that the composer wrote on request for the High School of Music and Art in New York City. Tuneful and jaunty, the Overture makes no concession to less-than-professional musicianship and requires strong individualistic playing throughout. After a slightly shaky solo for trumpet about a minute into the work, the EUYO found its footing, and under Ashkenazy’s encouraging direction brought the piece to its brilliant conclusion.
Next up was the Franz Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major, played with power, panache and clear-headed virtuosity by Yefim Bronfman, who seems from my several past hearings of him to have never met a work for piano of which he cannot become the master. Whether spinning the dreamy arabesques of the concerto’s beginning or powerfully declaiming the stormy tempests that arise later in the work, Bronfman was always the enlightened and undaunted artist, the EUYO and Ashkenazy ever the well-matched partners. The program book contained the following apropos quote from Michael Steinberg: “An expert keyboard athlete of little musical insight can make a go of the First (Liszt) Concerto, but the Second Concerto is for poets only.” Bronfman’s ministrations, and those of his accompanists, were wonderfully bardic at all turns. The audience loved it, and so did the Orchestra – rhythmic applause and stomping on the stage brought Bronfman out for bows several times. He rewarded his on-stage and off admirers with a thoughtful, pearlescent and, yes, poetic reading of Frederic Chopin’s op. 10 F-Major Etude.
After a longish intermission, the reason for the extension of the Symphony Hall stage became clear, for on the platform was a huge ensemble, warming up for one of Richard Strauss’s most daunting works for orchestra: An Alpine Symphony, loftily dedicated to the ideal, in the composer’s words of “…moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.”
An Alpine Symphony is rarely heard because it requires an unusually large complement of players, four of each woodwind instruments, 18 brass, two harps, organ, celesta and enlarged string sections. Every one of those players is faced with an extremely demanding instrumental part – no “coasting” is possible at any moment. Not really a symphony at all, the work occupies a vast tonal landscape divided into 22 connected sections, all illustrative of an ascent and subsequent descent of a towering mountain peak and a metaphoric portrait of life. Replete with colorful musical depictions of The Night, a Sunrise, a cascading Waterfall, a cowbell-bedecked Mountain Meadow, the Summit, ominous rising Mists and a cataclysmic Thunderstorm, some auditors find the music a bit vulgar and self-indulgent. I’m not quite so dismissive, however – the sheer, almost insolent virtuosity of brilliant orchestration just sweeps aside for me any misgivings I may ultimately have for the sprawl this piece, and I freely admit to enjoying the hedonistic immersion in the rich sounds flowing from the stage. And thankfully, at their several powerful heights, the many impressive fortissimi still possessed a welcome transparency.
The EUYO was fully up to the many challenges of bringing this vast work off, but as impressive as these young players were, they must share their success with the inspired leadership that Ashkenazy brought to them. He was the ideal guide; he knew every twist and turn of the precipitous musical trail up and down the mountain, and clearly showed the way to all of his charges for the entire perilous journey. Hats off, Mr. Ashkenazy. You lead a band as well as you play the piano, and that’s no faint praise.
What besides a loud and heartfelt ovation for this youthful ensemble could possibly follow the Strauss? Why, an encore: Bernstein, in the form of a sparkling and festive arrangement (by whom?) of the lively “America” from West Side Story, played, as one would have expected by now, to the absolute hilt, creating a very nice “bookending” of a concert with American works.
With youths playing so well in the several NEC orchestras, the el sistema orchestras of Venezuela, the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra, The annual TMC Orchestra, the Boston University-sponsored Orchestras, and this marvelous EUYO, hope for the future of orchestral classical music performance is encouragingly springing eternal.