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Leonard Bernstein was born 100 years ago, and you'll be hearing a lot of his music in the concert halls and radio broadcasts all year long. His career was arguably the most influential and successful of any American classical musician. One of the important aspects of his work was reaching out to young people, especially in his long series of Young People's Concerts. Broadcast TV has not been friendly to classical music for the last few decades, but times were different in the '50s and '60s, and such things were possible. Conductor David Hagy and I both remember seeing these broadcasts in our youth, and learning a good deal from them.
Another thing Bernstein did was to feature very young outstanding musicians as soloists with his orchestras, including Yo-Yo Ma. Many of these prodigies went on to be quite important in the field. It was fitting, therefore, for the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra to commemorate Bernstein not only by performing his music, but also by including two young soloists, as well as a large choir, the Rowan County Fifth Grade Honors Chorus, at this Livingstone College performance.
Hagy was very comfortable chatting with the audience, which for this orchestra and town was really appropriate. One of the first things he asked before the concert started was "How many people have never been to an orchestra concert?" A good many hands went up, and not just among the hundred or so fifth graders in the chorus. So, he started by explaining how the orchestra starts off by tuning, and so forth. Thankfully all the music was single-movement, so there wasn't the complication of to clap or not to clap between them. A series of short selections was probably wise given the youthful audience, and the entire program was less than an hour and a half.
The first work was Fanfare by Bernstein, written for the 25th anniversary of the High School of Music and Art in New York City in 1961. This odd work, originally for band, is only a few measures long, and takes about twenty seconds to perform.
Next came the Overture to Candide. While the contemporary reaction to Candide was muted, it has survived as a quality work in both operatic and musical theater performances. This was an opportunity to show off the Salisbury Symphony's considerable technical abilities, as this is not an easy piece to play. Especially of note was the strong showing by the strings, who have to scramble about with some rapid figurations. There is plenty of work also for the big brass sound.
That was followed by the enigmatic Sixteen, which was listed in the program as having been composed by an "anonymous 16-year-old who grew up watching the Leonard Bernstein New York Philharmonic Young Peoples' Concert," Hagy mentioned in leading up to this piece that the composer had gone to his high school; but one has the suspicion that this is something by Hagy himself. (After all there is a long tradition of shuffling credit away among composers – I've done it myself, although I suppose the name Wilhelm von Rubensohn is a touch transparent.) This short work for full orchestra showed considerable orchestration skills for such a young age, in the kind of strictly tonal language that was not badly handled.
Now it was time for the two young soloists. First was cellist Kevin Agnew, a junior in high school, performing the first movement from Edward Elgar's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. This is one of the most dramatic and passionate works in the literature, and is taxing for professionals to take on. This is especially true after the landmark recording by Jacqueline du Pré. Perhaps this was not the best choice for Kevin to play, although such choices are usually made by teachers at this stage. I am careful to be encouraging to all young players; he had fine intonation and decent tone. It will be critical for him to concentrate on the emotional content of the music, as well as stage presence, which may take some years of experience. This performance was entirely impassive, without dynamic contrast, and simply covered the notes, with some serious problems with phrasing and connecting the musical lines. Focusing on playing carefully and accurately misses the point, although it can be practical for dealing with contests.
The second soloist was even younger, a freshman in high school, Caroline Smoak. She performed the first movement from another highly charged work, Samuel Barber's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Smoak showed impressive technical skills, but more than that, it was clear that she had a mature take on the musical and emotional content of the piece, and had something to say. She has already come to the attention of established violinists, as it must be obvious to them that hers is an extraordinary talent. Without doubt, if she stays healthy and focused, and wants to do it, she could have a successful professional career.
Time for more Bernstein, with the fourth movement, "Turkey Trot," from Divertimento. This is a pleasant little tidbit, something fun for the orchestra and a treat for the kids. The piece was written in 1980 for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and refers throughout to music that the young Bernstein heard that orchestra play as he grew up.
Now time for the singers. Soloist baritone Dairon McGraw sang "Simple Song" from the Mass by Bernstein. He has a fine clear voice that did justice to the music. Next, he was joined by the extraordinarily large Rowan County Fifth Grade Honors Chorus, bedecked in green tee shirts printed for the occasion, in the "Gloria Tibi" from the Mass. The kids managed the meter, which was in 5, in fine style, complete with memorized Latin.
The vibraphone used in this concert, which was noticeable in the Mass movements, was recently purchased from donations to the memorial fund in memory of the former principal percussionist for the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra, Mike Austin, who died in 2017.
The chorus performed two songs, "Meeting Scene" and "Somewhere" from West Side Story. The ending of "Somewhere," at the conclusion of the musical, is a guaranteed tear-jerker, although Stephen Sondheim was a touch embarrassed at his youthful indiscretions with the lyrics. Better sung than read!
The concert concluded with a medley taken from familiar highlights from West Side Story. This was an enjoyable show, well-suited throughout to the young audience and their doting and proud parents.