Portland Youth Philharmonic, Metropolitan Youth Symphony reviews: among the young stars

Season ending concerts from Portland youth orchestras showcase the area's young classical musicians


They’re perhaps the second-best orchestra in Portland. And that’s saying something, considering that, unlike the Oregon Symphony, they’re all amateurs — everyone, including the first-chair players.

Plus they’re all college age or younger (sometimes much younger).

David Hattner led PYP’s spring concert at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Photo: Brian Clark.

The Portland Youth Philharmonic, the oldest young musicians’ band in the country, founded in 1924, is coming up on its centenary. Known as the Portland Junior Symphony for the first 54 years of its existence, it has flourished for 92 years with only five conductors. Formed by schoolteacher Mary Dodge at the Irvington School, the band soon secured the services of the Russian emigré Jacques Gershkovitch as its first conductor. The maestro served until 1953, when an alumnus of his orchestra, Jacob Avshalomov, took over and ruled the roost for another 42 (!) years. During Avshalomov’s tenure, the band enjoyed such illustrious guest conductors as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland.

Welshman Huw Edwards assumed control when “Mr. A.,” as he was called, retired in 1995. When Edwards left in 2002, Mei-Ann Chen became conductor, and she yielded the baton in 2008 to the current leader, David Hattner, who has led the group for the past nine years, having been chosen from a field of 112 candidates.

Hattner may be the best yet at the PYP. An accomplished clarinetist, he came relatively late to conducting but has compiled an impressive list of credits, including performances in Brooklyn, Eugene, Cincinnati and with the Oregon Symphony. He has instituted a chamber orchestra series to supplement PYP’s orchestra offerings, and to hear him talk about his job is to realize how committed he is to the mission of bringing talented kids and classical music together.

The Portland Youth Philharmonic that played on Sunday, May 7 in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was large: more than 100 young musicians, including an enormous string section and very generous winds (eight horns, four clarinets, four bassoons, four flutes, three oboes), plus a superb and charismatic timpanist, Colin Crandal, who seemed to be an inspiration for the whole band. With such forces, the orchestra succeeded in making itself heard clearly in the Schnitz’s wretched acoustics.

Composer Debra Kaye. Photo: Genevieve Spielberg.

This was very welcome in the program’s first selection, Ikarus Among the Stars, by New York composer Debra Kaye, a piece commissioned by the parents of former PYP violist Benjamin Yaphet Klatchko, who died in 2015 at age 16. Kaye’s 16-minute score balances the full orchestra’s sound against chamber music-like passages and electro-acoustic material recorded by Binya, as Mr. Klatchko was known. These include rhythm tracks, keyboard riffs, and even snatches of a song called “Among the Stars.” Their inclusion, especially the song’s, yield a somber but uplifting tone, a moving addition to Ms. Kaye’s sensitive and elegiac orchestration, which balanced the aspirations and fate of the mythological Ikarus’s attempt to escape earth’s clutches.

The concert hall got some of its own back, acoustically, in the orchestra’s second selection, Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto from 1919. The soloist was 15-year-old Annie Zhang, winner of the 2016-2017 PYP Concerto Competition, and the cavernous Schnitz simply gobbled too much of this young player’s cello tone for the performance to be a complete success. The 25-minute concerto, which, like Ms. Kaye’s piece, has an elegiac cast, didn’t make the impression it can. Ms. Zhang conquered the concerto’s difficulties with aplomb, and played the entire piece with understanding and expressiveness belying her youth, but the hall won. The orchestra, minus some of its winds, accompanied very well under David Hattner’s inspired direction and constant warnings to play more softly.

Annie Zhang was the soloist in ‘Ikarus Among the Stars’ at PYP’s spring concert. Photo: Brian Clark.

The highlight of the program came in the second half with Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, a big (38-minute) masterpiece written in 1890 that balances the power of Brahms with the delicacy of Mendelssohn. Dvorak’s wonderful mellow opening by the cellos, trombones, and tuba arrived as a creamy flow, interrupted by the principal flutist’s excellent birdsong. The third movement Allegretto grazioso’s lovely, Slavic-sounding violin melody was nicely rendered, and the trumpet fanfare at the beginning of the final movement was thrilling before the orchestra once again receded into the rich, earthy loam of cellos and violas playing together.

The one thing obviously separating the PYP from its big brother, the Oregon Symphony, is the precision of its ensemble playing, within and among sections of the orchestra. This quality comes only with long rehearsal with the same personnel, and the PYP doesn’t have this luxury. Each year a goodly number of its members “graduate”; when Maestro Hattner asked them to stand in a post-concert tribute, it seemed as if a third of the orchestra is due to be replaced next season. Still, one can be certain that the band’s 93rd season, which will feature music by Beethoven, Chopin, De Falla, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky/Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Gerald Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto, with Hattner as soloist and former PYP leader Huw Edwards conducting, will be another triumph.

MYS: Fantastic Symphony

Another Portland-area children’s orchestra, the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, was started in 1974 by Lajos Balogh with just a handful of string players. In a year it had grown to 35 and was able to give its first public concert. Since then, MYS has expanded to include twelve ensembles: seven orchestras (most of them just strings), three bands, and two jazz groups. Their premier ensemble, the Symphony Orchestra, gave its season-closing concert on June 4 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Renee Zhang performed at Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s June 4 concert. Photo: Richard Kolbell

As at the earlier Portland Youth Philharmonic concert (see above) and also a recent Vancouver Philharmonic show, young winners of concerto competitions were featured. And as in the case of the PYP’s talented young cellist, the MYS’s string soloists were sabotaged by the Schnitz’s acoustic. This was a shame, because violist Randy Zhang and violinist Renee Zhang chose challenging music and played very well. Mr. Zhang’s rendition of the third-movement Allegro vivace of Béla Bartok’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra from 1949 and Ms. Zhang’s athletic performance of the fourth movement Allegro guerriero (“fast and warlike”) of Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy from 1880 — both were from time to time nearly inaudible despite the orchestra’s quiet accompaniment.

This was emphatically not the case with the MYS’s third soloist, clarinetist Joseph Folwick, who played the opening movement of Bernhard Crusell’s Concerto No. 3 for Clarinet from 1807. Crusell (1775-1838) was the greatest clarinetist of his time, and his music resembles a mixture of Mozart and Haydn. Mr. Folwick played with thoroughly professional skill; his phrasing, his variations in volume, and his attack were inspired and seemed the marks of a much more seasoned player. And the clarinet’s clarion tone carried perfectly in the hall. This was a remarkable nine-minute demonstration by a very talented young musician.

Clarinetist Joseph Folwick excelled at MYS’s spring concert. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

After an intermission, the orchestra, under conductor Raúl Gómez, gave an enthusiastic and spirited account of Hector Berlioz’s genre-bending Symphonie fantastique of 1830. The peaceful and passionate first three movements were nicely done, especially the third-movement Scène aux champs (“Scene in the country”), which runs a languorous 16 minutes. But the real fun began in the hallucinatory (Leonard Bernstein called it “psychedelic”) fourth-movement Marche au supplice (“March to the Scaffold”), in which the unfortunate composer dreams of being hanged for killing his beloved. Here the orchestra — beefed up by the addition of five trombones and two tubas — was at its best, and it continued the strong playing through the final Songe d’une nuit du sabbat (“Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath”). The audience leapt to its feet in a prolonged standing ovation, during which Maestro Gómez thanked 18 MYS alumni who had participated and saluted the thirty-odd graduates. The orchestra then jumped into a raucous encore: Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 5.

Overall the MYS played with a little less precision of pitch within orchestra sections than the PYP, and they had the same difficulty with ensemble rhythms as their older cousin. But their skill and dedication were evident throughout the evening. For the occasional concert-goer, both orchestras offer a product that can be enjoyed on many levels: as pure music-making, as proof that classical music education is not dead, as evidence of inspired children.

As for which orchestra is better as a performing ensemble, and which one local parents should enroll their children in, suffice it to say that they’re different: different leaders, different support personnel, different learning opportunities. MYS accepts students through their freshman year of college, and sometimes older on a case by case review.  PYP accepts students until they turn 22 year of age. Their repertoire choice is not very different, their insistence on attendance, private instruction, and practice hours are similar. And both emphasize the importance of music education above training future virtuosos, believing that playing classical music can lead to a well-rounded adult, whether or not the child elects to continue his or her musical education. In short, a matter of taste, and for Portland, an embarrassment of riches.

Recommended recordings

• Kaye Ikarus Among the Stars
And So It Begins: Chamber Music and Solos (Ravello RR7899), 2013.

• Elgar Cello Concerto
Jacqueline du Pré, cello, London Symphony Orchestra, John Barbirolli conducting (EMI 965932-2), 1965.
Sol Gabetta, cello, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Mario Venzago conducting (RCA Red seal 88697 63081-2), 2010.

• Dvorak Symphony No. 8
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Mariss Jansons conducting (BR Klassik 900145), 2016.
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, George Szell conducting (Audite AUDITE95625), 1969.

• Bartok Viola Concerto
William Primrose: A 20th Century violist (Praga PRD250324), 1951.

• Crusell Clarinet Concerto No. 3
Crusell: Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1, 2 & 3 (BIS BISSACD1723), 2009.

• Bruch Scottish Fantasy
Maxim Fedotov, violin, Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Dmitri Yablonsky conducting (Naxos 8.557395), 2004.

• Berlioz Symphonie fantastique
Berliner Philharmoniker, Simon Rattle conducting (Warner Classics 2162240), 2008.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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