Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

‘Why music? Music is fun!’: Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s silly symphonies

MYS stirred up the fun in their cartoon-themed season opener.

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Raúl Gómez-Rojas conducts Metropolitan Youth Symphony Sunday. Photo by Richard Kolbell.
Raúl Gómez-Rojas conducting Metropolitan Youth Symphony in 2018. Photo by Richard Kolbell.

“Why music? Music is fun!” Those words, spoken by Raúl Gómez-Rojas, music director of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, aptly introduced the orchestra’s season opener (November 12) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. With an ebullient and charismatic personality Gómez-Rojas helmed an enthusiastic concert that highlighted music associated with animated films, including beloved classical pieces, Disney hits, and a world premiere for a cartoon that will be released next year.

To get the concertgoers in the cinematic mood, the orchestra kicked things off with Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain in the famous arrangement by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Most folks know the music because of Disney’s Fantasia film, and the musicians, urged on by Gómez-Rojas stirred the pot into a marvelous witches’ brew before settling into the calm of the dawning morning.

One of the cool things that MYS does is to perform music by young composers–really young composers. The MYS gave the world premiere of Music for an Imaginary Cartoon, which was written by Elishiya Crain-Keddi (Vancouver School of Arts and Academics), Manu Isaacs (Jesuit High School), Max Evans-McGlothin (Cleveland High School), A’shariá Pendergrass (St. Mary’s Academy), and Malia Baker (Tualatin High School). The piece is part of a commissioning project called “The Authentic Voice” that works with Fear No Music’s Young Composer Project under the guidance of Jeff Payne and Dr. Ryan Francis (read Brett Campbell’s YCP profile here). 

Each composer wrote a brief segment of music that will be compiled and matched up with a real animated film that is currently being produced. So, for this concert, each snippet was performed separately, accompanied by nifty real-time concert notes that were provided to smart phones through concertcue.com. Beginning with a nod to Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt, it seemed that Music for an Imaginary Cartoon consisted of at least seven separate segments, evoking a variety of moods: playful and jaunty, dark and somber, march-like and forceful, and a blur of near cacophony. To hear how everything fits together with the cartoon, listeners will have to come back to the Schnitz on June 16, 2024.

After intermission, the orchestra performed beloved movie music written by Alan Menken. First up was his arrangement of themes from Beauty and the Beast, which featured exceptional playing by concertmaster Noah Carr and principal cellist Cyrus Ngan. Next came The Little Mermaid in which Gómez-Rojas, during the calypso-inspired “Under the Sea” passage, put his hands down and swayed to the music. This was topped off the musicians accompanying Zach Galatis, solo piccolo of the Oregon Symphony and vocalist par excellence, who delivered a superb rendition of Ursula’s big number, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” from The Little Mermaid

Gómez-Rojas gamely took up the challenge from his four-year-old daughter to conduct Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with a unique baton that had a pink start attached to one end. That touch of silliness worked perfectly for Gómez-Rojas, who quickly used the magic wand to cast a spell over the orchestra and elicit a beguiling performance from them. 

To close out the evening, MYS ardently delved into the lovely melodies of My Neighbor Totoro, which Joe Hisaishi wrote for the 1988 Japanese animated fantasy film of the same name. Somewhere along the way, concertmaster Carr broke a string, and his stand-partner exchanged violins with Carr – as per orchestral etiquette – so that he could keep going.

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The concert began with the Interlude Orchestra, under Erica Boland performing two pieces. This ensemble is the MYS organization’s entry-level orchestral ensemble. Walking from section to section, Boland carefully made sure that the students were in tune with each other before embarking on The Second Storm (Ivan) by Robert W. Smith. It had a gentle, sustained melody before launching into a spirited section that evoked the turbulence of Hurricane Ivan, which struck Florida in 2004. With Boland providing absolutely clear stickwork, Elliot Del Borgo’s Slavonic Legend received a solid rendition from the kids. 

If they stick to their studies, they will move up the ranks to the advanced orchestra some day in the near future. It’s great that the MYS provides structure and financial support for these young musicians.

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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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