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.

The full string section was back for Norman Leyden’s Serenade for String Orchestra, written specifically for intermediate level players. This more advanced group aced it, additionally infusing it with a warmth and finesse which made a fitting tribute to Leyden, who passed away just this summer at 95. He was the Oregon Symphony’s resident and pops conductor for many decades, and a gig directing the PYP first brought him to Portland back in the 1960s.

By the time composer and famed piano virtuoso Sergei Rachmaninov wrote his final work, the Symphonic Dances, in 1940, the world had largely passed him by as a composer. It didn’t seem to discourage him. The generic title hides a masterly summing up of his musical language: the unique shifting harmonies, the freight-train rhythms, the love of church chants – especially the “Dies Irae”  and the technicolor orchestration. Plus it seems more tightly argued than most of his other large-form works, which tend to run on as if he was unwilling to let go of a lovely sound. And it’s all infused with irrepressible energy here, aching nostalgia for the Russia he had left forever there, and throughout, an unabashed expressivity that had become unfashionable among the avant-garde of the day. Eugene Ormandy, the director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in its golden age, performed it only a few times even though the work was dedicated to them. In recent decades, the work has become newly appreciated as old esthetic battles recede into the past.

As might be expected, there is nothing easy about performing such a work. Everybody from the concertmaster to the percussion section gets a stiff workout. There’s even a long solo for alto saxophone, unique in Rachmaninov’s output. But the PYP really rose to the occasion. The introduction to the first dance was electric, the massed strings suddenly hammering out whack-a-mole harmonies with ferocious concentration. Saxophonist Junik Kim’s solo could have used more dynamic shaping, but his tone was soulful and his fingers sure. Muted brass (including those trombones) heralded the second dance with tight apocalyptic crunches, and then the winds whirled like dervishes above a mad waltz in the rest of the orchestra. As in the Wagner, sometimes details became clouded – the only fault with the whirling was that it wasn’t louder – and the phrasing was sometimes a bit square compared to a major league professional orchestra. But these are picky details. The group was on a roll, and if anything they surpassed themselves in the final relentless dance. After the last rapid-fire riff on the “Dies Irae” was vanquished by the full orchestra in a thunderous climax, one could only shout “Hallelujah!” like the composer’s inscription at the end of the score.

The overall high quality of the performance – superlative for a student group – and the inclusion of a major recent work by a living American composer, which didn’t noticeably scare patrons away, raises a final gentle question. The Oregon Symphony actually programmed three such works this season: Gabriela Lena Frank’s Three Latin-American Dances, Roberto Sierra’s Concerto for Saxophones, and Christopher Rouse’s Concerto for Orchestra. That’s a lot for them, almost twice as much as last year. Were they afraid of being outdone by “the kids”? However it happened, kudos to OSO director Carlos Kalmar, and not least to PYP director Hattner who regularly programs even local composers.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist.

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2 Responses.

  1. Rick Parfrey says:

    Thanks for your thorough review. I would take issue with your concluding statement,”superlative for a student group..”. What student group are you referring to? An elementary, middle or high school orchestra? The problem with your comment is that it somehow implies that PYP should be measured against other orchestras made up of a bunch of school kids where the truth is that they should be measured against not only orchestras at the collegiate level but also many professional second and third tier symphonies.

    I consider myself a very informed and discerning judge of classical music and over the last three years have found PYP concerts to be of exemplary quality. In the future I would hope that you would see fit to not bunch PYP performances within the spectrum of “student performance” without explaining your means of measurement.

    • Jeff Winslow says:

      The point of the concluding paragraph is that the PYP is nipping at the heels of the OSO, which is neither third nor second tier but a first tier professional orchestra.

      “Superlative” means “of the highest quality; surpassing all others.”

      Between these two points, no one should get the impression that the quality of this performance was anything but exemplary. Some people may have dismissive attitudes towards students, but I don’t.

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