Washougal Art & Music Festival

Connecting young and old: Portland Youth Philharmonic’s “Concert-at-Christmas”

PYP and its various subgroups, including the alumni orchestra, performed at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert in Downtown Portland the day after Christmas.

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Portland Youth Philharmonic Alumni Orchestra. Photo by Zachary Person.
Portland Youth Philharmonic Alumni Orchestra. Photo by Zachary Person.

For the past 62 years, the Portland Youth Philharmonic has presented its annual Concert-at-Christmas as a showcase for its family of ensembles plus an orchestra consisting of its alumni (watch the replay here). By providing a musical bridge that connects the young and the old, this annual event becomes one of the most heartwarming of the year. This year’s edition of the Concert-at-Christmas (December 26) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was enhanced by an enthusiastic audience that packed the place. It was encouraging to see that lots of people were willing to return downtown. 

I talked briefly with an older couple, sitting to my right in the dress circle of the balcony, and asked if they had grandkids in one of the ensembles. They replied with a no. In fact, they didn’t know anyone in the PYP organization. They just wanted to hear a classical music concert. So to all of the naysayers (including Elon Musk) about Portland’s downtown scene, take that and chew on it!

Portland Youth Philharmonic Alumni Orchestra. Photo by Zachary Person.
Portland Youth Philharmonic Alumni Orchestra. Photo by Zachary Person.

Now to the music. The concert led off with the Alumni Orchestra, under PYP’s musical director David Hattner, filling all the real estate on the stage. Before striking a note, Hattner recognized the musicians, asking them to stand according to the music director they played under. It turned out that at least one musician, violist Carl Schnoor, was in the PYP (called the Portland Junior Symphony) under its first MD, Jacques Gershkovitch. You can read about Schnoor’s very interesting life here.

So, girded with wall-to-wall symphonic forces–including seven trumpets and seven trombones–the veterans had a field day with John Williams’ Superman March. They gave it plenty of pulsating drive and wrapped it up with an emphatically robust finale. 

From the oldest the scene transitioned to the youngest, with the Portland Youth String Ensemble taking the stage, festooned with white ribbons to symbolize peace. Conducted by Inés Voglar Belgique, the young musicians played Grandfather Storyteller by Nancy Ives, giving the piece its first live performance (the PYSE played it on YouTube earlier). Its solemn, dirge-like melody was accented effectively with the slow beat of the bass drum. Next came the John Williams Trilogy (an arrangement by Calvin Clark featuring music from Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Raiders of the Lost Ark), which set out with a quicker tempo, big melodies, and a lovely solo by concertmaster Emaline Haruko Bunch.

Portland Youth String Ensemble, conducted by Inés Voglar Belgique. Photo by Zachary Person.
Portland Youth String Ensemble, conducted by Inés Voglar Belgique. Photo by Zachary Person.

The Portland Youth Wind Ensemble, directed by Giancarlo Castro D’Addona, gave Pierre Leemans’s The March of the Belgian Paratroopers (arranged by Charles Wiley) a lively beat. The happy-go-lucky sound of John Philip Sousa’s Pushing On continued the positive atmosphere.  For Jay Bocook’s arrangement of Michael Giacchino’s Symphonic Suite from Star Trek, the ensemble took off quickly, created several bombastic crescendos, and expanded on the popular theme before landing a ka-pow ending. 

Just over a year ago, the PYP played the world premiere of Childhood Memories by Farhad Poupel, an Iranian composer who now lives in the United Kingdom. This time around, the Portland Youth Conservatory Orchestra (the preparatory orchestra for the PYP), led expertly by Lawrence Johnson, undertook the three-movement work. The cheerful opening (“Miniature overture”) revealed uplifting thematic elements. The second movement (“Lullaby in memory of my grandmother”) featured a poignant solo on English horn by Alejandro Belgique that echoed into other sections of the orchestra. The third movement (“Finale”) was highlighted by fine solos from principal clarinetist Claire Lin and principal trombonist Owen Weddle. The final melody traveled smoothly from section to section and gathered steam before concluding the piece triumphantly.

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During its portion of the program, the PYP welcomed Huw Edwards, who helmed the orchestra from 1995 to 2002. Under Edwards, the musicians gave an incisive performance of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. The group excelled in transitioning from a hymnlike sound to a boisterous proclamation and the almost silly section with the three bassoons piping playfully.  Impressive dynamic shifts that took the sound down to the piano level and then building up to a grand forte brought the piece to a satisfying end.

Portland Youth Philharmonic, conducted by former directed Huw Edwards. Photo by Zachary Person.
Portland Youth Philharmonic, conducted by former directed Huw Edwards. Photo by Zachary Person.

Under Hattner, the PYP made the most of Sousa’s Manhattan Beach, taking care so that the piccolo could be heard even when all the forces were going full steam. The strings peeled off an outstanding rendition of Leroy Anderson’s Plink, Plank, Plunk! Their pizzicatos were clean and dancelike, and the dynamics superb. The PYP unleashed a lot of sonic diversions with James Stephenson’s ROAR, which was premiered by the Chicago Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. The furious opening statement offered a rush of sound that came to a pinpoint stop followed by a quick pause. The trumpets created a repetitive sequence as if they were car horns that faded away into the distance. Some sections of the orchestra seemed to agitate other sections into action or perhaps it was more of an exchange as if in conversation. A cumulative crescendo towards the end of the piece sent the violins soaring, and it all suddenly stopped, leaving space for a distinct comical pop from one of the percussionists.

As an encore, the PYP played the “Dance of the Mirlitons” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Such a familiar and beloved number put the finishing touches on an outstanding evening that put the spotlight on the talented musicians of the PYP and its family of ensembles. 

Portland Youth Philharmonic. Photo by Zachary Person.
Portland Youth Philharmonic. Photo by Zachary Person.

P.S. for PYP insiders—it was enjoyable to watch the Price siblings, Eleanor and Ben, in the oboe section. Ben, currently studying at The Curtis Institute of Music, was profiled in OAW here

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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