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What is it about fifth symphonies? There are a flock of ‘em – by Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Dvorák (thinking here of “Old” No. 5, a.k.a. “The New World Symphony,” which is now generally numbered 9) – that, over the years, have been played so often they’re lumped together in the stable of war horses. Beethoven’s Fifth is in that category, and because of its “V for Victory” opening motif (the rhythm pounds out Morse code for the 22nd letter) – there are lots of WWII vets who’d probably prefer not to have to hear it again, for it was – by all accounts – rather seriously overexposed during the conflict. On the other hand, all these works – and perhaps especially Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, in C Minor, Op. 67 – are famous and thus popular for very good reasons, and as a result they all need to be played and heard from time to time, so young musicians may grapple with them and so new listeners may begin to explore their wonders. It’s a fact that at every performance – including performances of certified war horses – there are folks who are hearing the music for the first time and, often enough, for the last time, too…. As we’ve written from time to time on previous occasions, that is what makes live concerts so very special. No two performances, even back-to-back ones by world-class pros, are ever exactly alike. And that’s why the performance of Beethoven’s Fifth that was given in Meymandi Concert Hall this week by the Triangle Youth Philharmonic, under the baton of founding Artistic Director Hugh Partridge, was so important.
There are nearly 100 young musicians in the TYP, the “senior” orchestra in the Philharmonic Association. There are lots more in the other component ensembles the PA fields. Still other young musicians play in the PA’s jazz group; others in the region are affiliated with the Mallarmé Youth Chamber Orchestra and its chamber music programs, or with the Duke University String School. There are lots of performance opportunities hereabouts for young players, and all have outstanding leadership. (For a list of some of these operations – a list that may amaze and astound adults without offspring – see http://cvnc.org/links/ForStudents.html.) All that said, one would be hard-pressed to deny the TYP its place at the top of the heap, regionally, given its organizational maturity, the number of young people it serves, and the range and depth of its repertoire. That they’ve finally gotten ‘round to Beethoven’s Fifth – and that it was done as well as it was – says a lot about the commitment of the entire PA family.
Partridge’s beat, cues, and encouragements are clear and obviously elicit good responses from his players. The opening and closing movements seemed to this listener particularly successful, for there was drama and energy and forward motion within a generally conservative temporal framework. The somewhat leisurely approach was a bit less successful in the intervening movements; the Andante could have been more tense, although it had plenty of weight and power and the dynamics were nicely managed, and the third movement was a tad ponderous – although that may have stemmed from retrospective comparison with the finale, which began with an impressive salvo and then didn’t let up. Throughout, the TYP strings – 66 of them, all told – did much to help ensure success. Some of us have given up on having our professional ensembles here in NC so richly endowed with string players, but our youth and college groups remind us from time to time what we’re missing – and why it matters so much. The winds and brass did well, too, overall, and the inclusion of the fourth movement exposition repeat – often omitted – added still more weight to the reading. At the end there was a considerable ovation from the crowd, partly (no doubt) for the performance and partly (to be sure) just for the group’s transversal of one of the greatest works in the whole history of Western art music.
Part two was likewise devoted to a single work, a work of considerable popularity and renown that, for reasons not too clear to this writer, will turn up again, in Chapel Hill, on December 8, when the UNCSO plays it. The work is Respighi’s The Pines of Rome, the second part of the so-called “Roman Trilogy” (which includes The Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals). In the third movement of Pines, bird calls are heard over the orchestra; at its premiere, this marked the first use of a recording in a major concert piece, a daring innovation at the time. These three scores, among the most colorful and brilliantly orchestrated works in the repertoire, often get bad raps from scholars and critics, but they are immediately attractive and often quite moving pieces, and the TYP did Pines more than justice, thanks to committed playing, the placement of a brass choir in the upper balcony at the rear of the hall, astute use of an off-stage trumpet, and seamless integration of those aforementioned birds. The tempi were well chosen, and the loud and fast finale helped convince the audience that the reading was, overall, a triumph.
The Triangle Youth Orchestra and the Triangle Youth Symphony performed in the same venue on Tuesday, November 24. The Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble plays at 3:00 p.m. December 6 at the NC Museum of History. And the UNCSO plays Pines and music by Sibelius and Rachmaninoff in UNC’s Memorial Hall at 7:30 p.m. December 8. See our calendar for details.