The NC Symphony received an award last year for its creative programming but the presentation wasn't for its youth concerts. Perhaps it should have been. The orchestra's latest Young People's Series offering, given in snow-blanketed Meymandi Concert Hall on the morning of January 5, drew a surprisingly large crowd for an eclectic hour-long presentation that offered an innovative line-up worthy of national attention. The idea behind the show, titled "Wunderkinder," was simple enough: precocious Wunderkinder like Mendelssohn and Charles Ives created some amazing things when they were young, and gifted soloists like Shen Liu, who won the NCS' 2001 Youth Concerto Competition, can play every bit as well as established artists with considerable name-recognition. It was a bit of a stretch to suggest that everyone can do it - that untrained youngsters can create music worthy of performance by a professional orchestra - but then the grand finale came and, lo!, a young composer-conductor demonstrated that even in our own times there are no bars to creativity for those who have "the gift."
Before the show, three Wundekinder from local schools - a flutist, a cellist and a harpist - played in the lobbies. Then Assistant Conductor Jeffrey W. Pollock began the program with Mendelssohn's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's part of a set of incidental music for the play that occupied him for a good many years but the fact that he was 17 when he penned the curtain-raiser is one of the miracles of music history. The orchestra played the piece admirably, evoking magic in balance and blend. There was magic, too, in the group's reading of Ives' Variations on "America," created (for organ) when our first great US-born composer was but 17. (The orchestration performed was surely that of William Schuman.)
Seventeen was the operative number for the concert, and seventeen is the age of pianist Liu, currently studying at Brevard College. She played the last movement of Beethoven's Third Concerto with a mixture of skill and involvement that made us regret not hearing her do the entire piece.
NCS Composer-in-Residence Nathaniel Stookey invited Kinder from the audience to participate in a mini composition clinic. Caroline, Will, Emma and Alex (their last names were not announced) provided rhythms that were played in turn by the strings, winds, percussion and brass, and when the short demos were complete, the NCS then realized the set of rhythmic patterns together, demonstrating (for those who didn't ponder the matter too deeply) that almost anyone can indeed do it.
A short movement from an early symphony by a fellow named Mozart, written when he was all of nine, showed that even world-class creators don't forge masterworks every time they take up the pen (or, today, the computer).
The juxtaposition of this short piece with the concert's grand finale was instructive in many ways. Hickory-based composer Steven J. Kukla (who has his own slightly out-of-date website, at http://www.youngcomposers.com/stevenjkukla/ [inactive 12/03]) is 17, and his Symphony No. 1 has already been heard in several places, including Enloe High School and at the Cannon Music Camp. The Symphony's last movement, marked Allegro maestoso, begins boldly and energetically and is very handsomely scored. Its first theme resembles a country dance of domestic (as opposed to European) origin; its second theme is broader and somewhat more introspective but nonetheless appeals equally. The movement ends with lots of brass and percussion and proved tremendously exciting. Kukla seemed completely at ease on the podium and cued the orchestra's entries with skill beyond his years. This work would be welcome in its entirety on a regular subscription concert sometime.
Indeed the whole program was remarkable. The young attendees (and their families) heard some fine music, beautifully played by an outstanding orchestra. There were no concessions to what is often perceived to be the mainline programming requirements of subscribers - there was 20th century music and new music, too, set off by chunks of works from earlier periods, and no one got up and steamed out when the modern stuff began. Maybe young people are more receptive than some of our regular symphony subscribers. Based on this program, it is clear that the future for symphonic music is not nearly as bleak as some folks would have us think.
The next concert in this three-event series, planned for March 9 at 11:00 a.m., is - for the record - sold out already, but the NCS has added an open rehearsal to its schedule, slated for 2:00 p.m. March 8. The program is "Peter and the Wolf," which means that 20th-century fare will again be on display.