All Classical Radio James Depreist

Portland Youth Philharmonic: Some like it new

The elite youth orchestra celebrates spring with four world premieres and a lyrically flowing performance by flutist Macy Gong, its concerto winner.

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Portland Youth Philharmonic onstage at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Photo by James Bash.
Portland Youth Philharmonic onstage at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Photo: James Bash

One would be hard-pressed to find a youth orchestra willing to mount a major concert with four world premieres. But the Portland Youth Philharmonic did just that on May 5th at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall — and they went even further by doling out the world premieres to lower-level ensembles in their organization.

You have to keep in mind that the PYP is more than its top-flight, senior orchestra. It is an organization with several preparatory ensembles that culminate with the PYP orchestra. So the May 5 concert, aptly titled “New Beginnings,” truly showed off the high quality of the PYP brand.

That doesn’t mean that the PYP orchestra and its musical director, David Hattner, got off the hook. They have been a busy band, just returning a few weeks earlier from a successful tour of the East Coast with the Imani Winds. Plus, the PYP Camerata, an expert string ensemble selected from players in the PYP orchestra, outstandingly accompanied the Oregon Repertory Singers in a concert the previous week, and that concert included a world premiere.

So for the New Beginnings concert, the PYP orchestra performed Charles T. Griffes’ Poem for Flute and Orchestra, which featured flutist Macy Gong, winner of PYP’s annual concerto competition. Gong, a senior at Oregon Episcopal School, is PYP’s principal flutist and has won numerous awards at regional and national competitions. Her playing of the Poem was astounding. She elicited the flowing lyricism of the piece with impeccable runs, sometimes mixed with chirpy sounds. Her outstanding breath control made it all sound effortless, and the audience responded with a standing ovation and lots of flowers. I counted at least seven bouquets that Gong received and miraculously held with her flute while acknowledging the applause. And she exited the stage without dropping anything!

The parade of world premieres began with Giancarlo Castro D’Addona’s Journey, which was played by the Portland Youth Wind Ensemble. Since Castro D’Addona is the conductor of PYP’s Wind Ensemble, he led the band, which played the piece with verve. The woodwinds evoked the singing of birds before the pulse picked up, with the snare drum leading the way. All sections of the ensemble got their moment in the spotlight, including some leading lines for the saxophones. It ended in a march that would have made John Williams proud.

Castro D’Addona is a burgeoning talent whose compositions have been played by many orchestras around the world, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel. He has a brand new piece that will be performed by the Oregon Symphony at the Schnitz June 1 – 3.

The Portland Youth String Ensemble, conducted by Inés Volgar Belgique, premiered the first movement from Polina Nazaykinskaya’s Symphony for Strings. Urged vigorously by Volgar Belgique, the musicians marvelously conveyed the melodic threads of this piece, weaving them into a lovely tapestry. Phrases that began in one section were pass expertly to other sections, and the movement concluded joyfully. Nazaykinskaya, who briefly talked about the piece with Hattner, joined the first violins in the music-making, a wonderful touch that added to the high quality of the performance.

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All Classical Radio James Depreist

Sylvan Talavera’s examine it carefully before it’s set ablaze received its initial performance by the Portland Youth Percussion Ensemble. The piece seemed to have a minefield of meter changes and pauses that would challenge a professional group. Under conductor Gordon Rencher the PYPE handled it adroitly, and listeners got to enjoy all of the instruments, which were spread out along the front of the stage. Talavera is a 2018 PYP alumnus who earned his Bachelors of Music in Composition from the University of Michigan in 2022.

The concert closed with Nancy Ives’ The Spirit of the Columbia, a unique piece that combined playing of the Portland Youth Conservatory Orchestra and the dancing, singing, and playing of the Four Directions ensemble, which is comprised of Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, who used to gather and fish at Celilo Falls. The building of The Dalles Dam in 1957 backed up the Columbia River so that Celilo Falls could no longer be used as it had been for thousands of years. This music presented a tribute to the falls, the fish, the river, and the people who knew it so well.

The Spirit of the Columbia began from the lobby, with the Four Directions group rhythmically singing, dancing, and beating drums. After they came to the front of the stage and stopped, the PYCO, under Larry Johnson’s direction, started up with pleasant melodic lines in the woodwinds. Tutti crescendos by the entire orchestra evoked the size and power of the falls. Low brass sounds crept in to announce the arrival of the white man. Members of Four Directions, in colorful costumes, danced across the stage, and the piece ended with a feeling of hope. The audience loved it, and I hope that we can see and hear it again.

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POSTSCRIPT: The impressive training that the PYP instills in youth will be on display once again in the orchestra’s season finale on May 31. Year after year the graduating class matriculates to colleges, conservatories, and other institutions of higher learning. For example, bassist Maggie Carter and bassoonist Katelyn Nguyen will be going to the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia, where PYP alum Ben Price is furthering his oboe studies. Gong will be a freshman at Stanford University. PYP is a bright light that Portlanders can be proud of.

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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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