david hattner

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.


Portland Youth Philharmonic review: Tomorrow’s musicians shine in music from yesterday and today

Next-generation orchestra's skilled playing matches its youthful energy.


The huge array of young musicians filling the stage at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall made barely a sound at first. Last weekend’s opening concert of the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s new season began with the music of Richard Wagner, but hardly the bombast many think typical, including movie mogul Sam Goldwyn.

Portland Youth Philharmonic opened its 90th season at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Portland Youth Philharmonic opened its 90th season at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Soon, seriously ghostly low strings gave way to soft horn calls and a ravishing clarinet solo (courtesy of principal Talia Dugan), and “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” was on its way. This excerpt from the monumental opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelungs (first performed complete in 1876) may not be an icon like “The Ride of the Valkyries,” but it’s nearly as exciting and has, in addition, some of the most passionate love music ever imagined by that complicated and controversial German master. It also, in its day, taxed some of the finest orchestras in Europe, so the PYP, on its first outing with many new faces, can be forgiven if things were a little rough around the edges here and there. The string section is even bigger than the Oregon Symphony’s, and inevitably crowds the winds to the back of the stage; that contributed to some details being lost in the mix. And the trombonists, who must open the piece very softly, didn’t quite overcome first-night, first-entrance jitters. But in the main, under director David Hattner’s energetic leadership, the band poured out the dramatic sweep of the work in focused, expressive style. Co-principal hornist PJ Hummelt ripped out Siegfried’s offstage horn solos with just the right infusion of testosterone, and took a well-deserved bow, as did co-principal Logan Bryck, who anchored the large horn section with some fine solos himself.

Contemporary American composer John Harbison’s Concerto for Bass Viol, still less than a decade old, is a much quieter work, with roughly half the strings (except a full complement of the soloist’s orchestral compatriots), winds in twos, and no trombones or tuba at all. The acoustic bass has many fine qualities, but rocking volume isn’t one of them, so no composer in his right mind would partner it with a Wagnerian orchestra.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised by the volume and intensity radiating from soloist Ted Botsford’s instrument. (Botsford is principal bassist for the Oregon Symphony.) He helped himself by adopting “solo tuning,” giving his instrument a more cello-like tone, but there was plenty of passion flowing down that bow arm too. The part often sails high up the range of each string, which increases power, but the more the soloist extends his arm to play those high notes, the more he’s forced into finer gradations of finger placement. These challenges and the occasional violin concerto style acrobatics mostly came off smoothly under Botsford’s sure fingers.

The work’s challenges and acrobatics didn’t seem to proceed from a composer working out some obscure compositional process. Harbison has tried to put a human face on the theoretical obsessions of mid- to late- 20th century serialism, though sometimes the results seem to fall in a grayish middle ground. This concerto was engaging from the first, the soloist spinning out a pensively swaying, almost folk-like tune, always a little off-balance rhythmically, while the orchestra echoed bits and pieces, piling on mysterious chords. (The wind section was a little ragged at first, but soon settled into their parts.) The harmonic language progresses naturally, and seamlessly integrates the simple and complex in a manner that recalls the Hungarian master Béla Bartók.

The first movement is titled “Lamento,” but had a restlessness that rescued it from excessive self-pity. Toward the end, we seemed to hear distant train whistles and the solo part became charged with new energy. It may be the musical equivalent of the classic movie scene where the sound of a distant train inspires a character to deal with troubles by hitting the road, or at least dreaming about it.

The second movement, “Cavatina,” returned to the mood of elegaic restlessness. But here the solo line sings as in the most intimate slow movements of J. S. Bach, against slowly shifting lines and colors in the orchestra. The intensity amped up until it simply had to burst out, and the full band let loose with tight intensity. Botsford fastened on one soulful note from their last chord, and returning to the mood of the opening, sang off into the darkness, helped on his way by cryptic jabs from the orchestra.

In the final “Rondo,” Harbison lets loose all his love of jazz, especially nervous, kinetic big band bebop. You couldn’t guess what would happen next, as Botsford and the orchestra traded short licks and danced dangerously around each other. Toward the end, the train rhythm from the first movement reappears and takes over the solo part, powering it up to one final explosion in the stratosphere. It begs for a big audience response and it got it. Living composers do still sometimes get them! We needed the intermission to unwind from that one.


David Hattner conducted Portland Youth Philharmonic's 90th anniversary concert at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Photo: Pete Stone.

David Hattner conducted Portland Youth Philharmonic’s 90th anniversary concert at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Photo: Pete Stone.


“There’s no professional orchestra that can give the energy that a youth orchestra can give in its four or five performances a year,”  Portland Youth Philharmonic music director David Hattner  told Oregon ArtsWatch, “because the professionals have to give at least a hundred concerts and by necessity can’t have that same sense of discovery and extra energy. For PYP, every piece is a world premiere.”

That sense of discovery energized the orchestra’s ambitious winter program: a PYP premiere of Oregonian composer Kevin Walczyk’s Celebration Fanfare, Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, and a PYP premiere of Shostakovich’s massively brutal Symphony #4.  


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