Portland Youth Philharmonic at 90: Celebrating with Shostakovich

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.

By JANA HANCHETT

“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.  

Walczyk’s Celebration Fanfare made a perfectly cheerful opener to this 90-year celebration of the longest-running youth orchestra in the nation. “We are an American orchestra in Oregon, so it’s only natural that we delve into this repertoire,” Hattner explained. “PYP musicians need to know that they could become a Kevin Walczyk or a Kenji Bunch.” This evening also happened to be the 15th birthday of PYP’s concerto competition winner Samuel Zacharia, who heroically performed Bartók’s Viola Concerto.

Then PYP performed what we were all really there for: Shosti 4. “It was time to do something outrageous,”  Hattner explained to Oregon ArtsWatch. “The city and the state needed to hear a live performance of this piece, and the forces required for the piece make it too expensive for anyone else to perform.”

PYP joined forces with their younger counterparts from Portland Conservatory Orchestra; the youngest on stage were two sixth graders in the string section. “The piece does not exist unless 125 people get together and play it,” Hattner said. “Sometimes I’ll hold up the score and say, ‘This is not the Shostakovich fourth symphony. This is just the recipe.’ PYP kids get it: in order to make this beautiful thing happen you have to strip away some of what makes you an individual and give it to everyone else. What comes out is this spirit, this amazing piece of music, and you’ve never heard anything as beautiful as that. None of them will ever forget it.”

Shostakovich’s fourth symphony lasts over an hour, and incessantly depicts the oppressive atmosphere of Soviet life. While it’s certainly not a celebratory piece, the expansive pride with which Hattner conducted the symphony infused the musicians with glowing confidence. “Orchestra teaches young musicians how to really, really concentrate in a group setting,” said Hattner. “You have to control your body, breathing, counting; you have to listen, read the music, and look at the conductor all at once. If you’re in PYP long enough to do that well, you’re a very accomplished person.”

David Hattner. Photo: Allen S. Lefohn.

David Hattner. Photo: Allen S. Lefohn.

How do musicians, particularly young musicians, get to the heart of this labyrinthine composition that snakes into frightening recesses of oppression, defiance, and despair? “This is as bad as it gets:” admitted Hattner, “to have to play that very disjointed 30-minute third movement at the end of a long concert. The music is all over the place, and you have to really know what’s happening now, what’s happening one minute from now, and do I have to save something for five minutes, 20 minutes from now?”

While the orchestra seemed a bit lost in the Bartók, Hattner obviously took great pains to guide the players through every turn in the symphony. The musicians held the whole piece in their mind from beginning to end, listening and responding to each other in seamless transitions between marches, fugues, waltzes, chases, and exploratory suspensions. The symphony also features numerous solos, allowing the audience to appreciate the individual strength of the principals in almost every section. Of special note were piccolo players Sara Hedberg and Rosemarie Cabading, the chillingly bombastic percussion section, and English horn player Julia Porter.

PYP’s explosive performance of the Shostakovich blew away concerns about youthful naivete with their insanely mature music making. “These youth are professionals,” said Hattner. “They give their full emotional and physical force on anything they’re given to do because they take pride in what they do.”

PYP is gearing up for their spring concert on May 4. “There’s too many people who have heard of PYP but haven’t taken the time to come out and hear us. They’re missing out,” said Hattner. “PYP is a mature artistic entity made up of young people playing diverse, interesting repertoire not replicated anywhere else in the community. Because of these qualities, we hope the new generation of listeners make PYP their choice of entrance into the classical music scene.”

Jana Hanchett is a teacher, writer, and pianist living in Portland.

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