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Whenever you get worried about the future of classical music, attend one of the concerts of the three orchestras of the Philharmonic Association, the Raleigh-based youth orchestra association, to revive your hopes. Last Tuesday and Sunday the three orchestras gave their end-of-the-year concerts, demonstrating both their raw talent and how far they progress from the time they first joined the Triangle Youth Orchestra (TYO), move on to the Triangle Youth Symphony (TYS) and finally leave from the Triangle Youth Philharmonic (TYP) when they graduate from high school. By then, the players sound nearly professional and their programs would present a respectable challenge to any professional orchestra. Most of the students who begin in TYO continue through the ranks, showing a sincere dedication and often a lifetime vocation.
It is not easy to join, and membership is determined by auditions. While the members of TYS and TYP are teens, there are a fair number of middle and even elementary-school players in the beginner's ensemble, TYO. In many ways, the biggest challenge is to these younger students. With large differences in age and in size, wind students have to struggle with instruments designed for adult hands and lungs while string players use instruments in reduced sizes with greatly reduced sound quality. Consequently, the works they perform are usually arranged to take these limitations into account, as well as teach the fundamentals of ensemble playing: staying in tune, balance, dynamics and, of course, counting,
The TYO, conducted by Andrew McAfee and Jeremy Gibbs gave a respectable performance of a challenging program, including 'Winter" from Vivaldi's The Seasons with Assistant Concertmistress Katherine Barton as soloist. Her story is only one example of the malleability and variability of these younger students: last year she sat in the back of the second violin section. Also on the program were arrangements of "March to the Scaffold" from Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique , Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien and - probably a sop to the kids - the main theme from Star Wars.
The progress between the TYO and the second level orchestra, the TYS, conducted by Tony Robinson and Marta Findlay-Partridge, is nothing short of astounding. The orchestra becomes crisp and the intonation quite accurate. The strings are much smoother and the woodwinds more nimble. The brass still suffers from limited lung power, causing intonation problems, especially in forte segments. And, with the exception of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll (originally a chamber orchestra work) all the works were in their original scores. There was, however, a certain cautiousness with tempo on the part of the conductors in choosing the works for TYS's program. The overture to Wagner's Rienzi , Copland's John Henry , Saint-Saëns Bacchanale from Samson et Delilah and the finale from Beethoven's Symphony No 5. were all taken at a snail's pace, perhaps to ensure absolute accuracy in pitch, rhythm and balance - which they got. The few more minutes it would have taken to do the entire fourth movement of the Beethoven would have kept the reprise of the opening theme from hanging out like a dangling participle.
The program of the TYP on Sunday, conducted by Hugh Partridge, the Artistic Director of the Philharmonic Association, was challenging and had a few surprises. It opened with William Schuman's Newsreel , a sort of gazebo music for a symphony orchestra, which was conducted by Jason Brame, a Flautist with the orchestra. Brame has studied conducting for a year with William Henry Curry, Associate Conductor of the NCS, who surely taught him a lot in one year. He knew the score by heart, demonstrated great sensitivity to the musical lines, kept a good and steady tempo and gave clear cues to the players who responded in kind. Later in the program he also showed himself to be a good piccolo player.
Another surprise was the choice by clarinetist Aaron Likness of Claude Debussy's Première Rhapsodie to demonstrate his prowess with his instrument. As with much of Debussy's music, this work requires a delicate and understated approach, often just a mere hint rather than a statement. Likness, a student of Arturo Ciompi, had the technique and his tone the sensitivity necessary to give a convincing performance. Conductor Partridge deferred to him with a flexible tempo, although the exuberant orchestra in places had difficulty matching his more subtle approach.
The program ended with Zoltán Kodály's Háry János Suite, a true showpiece for every instrument in the orchestra, from tuba and double bass to piccolo and high violins. The orchestra sounded crisp, had excellent intonation and responded well to the conductor's directions, especially in dynamics. In this composition, the orchestra was joined by the area's Háry János fixture - Christopher Deane on the cimbalom, the Hungarian variant of the hammer dulcimer. Being the sole cimbalom owner and player in the area, the TYP had to make an exception for him, since he is definitely not a teenager any more. The greatest regret, when you listen to the TYP, is the realization that you will not hear many of the players next year - they'll be gone to college. Perhaps we will hear them again in the future, as members of one of the area's professional music organizations.