Friday, November 15, 2013

Portland Youth Philharmonic excel with Dvořák, Grieg, Hanson, and Bunch

David Hattner and Kenji Bunch

The Portland Youth Philharmonic opened its 90th season on Saturday (November 9) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with a satisfying concert that ranged from well-known chestnuts to a world premiere. The well-known works on the program were Antonín Dvořák’s “Symphonic Variations” and Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, which featured PYP concerto winner Hannah Moon. The lesser known work was Howard Hanson’s “Elegy,” and the brand new piece was Kenji Bunch’s “Supermaximum,” which was completed just a few months ago.  All were played outstandingly by the PYP, under the direction of its music director David Hattner.
Kenji Bunch’s hypnotic “Supermaximum” received its world premiere in orchestral form. In its original chamber ensemble form, “Supermaximum” toured to much acclaim by the East Coast Chamber Orchestra.” After an enthusiastic performance in April by Camerata PYP (PYP’s chamber ensemble), Hattner asked Bunch to rearrange “Supermaximum” for orchestra. Bunch is an alumnus of the orchestra and, after graduating from Juilliard, has made a name for himself as a composer and performer (viola), working in New York City before returning to Portland earlier this year.
Inspired by the rhythms and sounds of prison chain gangs, “Supermaximum” started out low and slow like a primeval grunt with the violas leading the way. The French Horns joined with a slight snarl and the entire orchestra gradually fell into step, accented by rhythmic stomping on the stage floor and slapping of the sides of instruments. A call and response style seemed to emerge and climb higher and higher before fading away, only to be restarted by cellos and, later, the bass violins. Near the end of the piece, the trombones and trumpets stood up and added some swagger to the piece that gave it an edge of defiance.
After waiting a long time for a cell phone to quit ringing, Moon, who is also a member of the viola section, launched into Grieg’s Piano Concerto and gave a passionate performance. The fluidity of her phrasing was exceptionally smooth and well-balanced. She seemed to become more expressive as the piece developed, and the orchestra, guided by Hattner, accompanied her with sensitive playing.
Starting with a sinewy opening statement, the orchestra bathed Hanson’s “Elegy” in lots of warm colors. Hanson dedicated the piece to conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who was one of the most highly regarded champions of new music. Urged by Hattner, the strings strongly brought out melodic themes that created a mood of empathy with a tinge of sorrow mixed in. Principal oboist Kenny Regan played several solos with grace, and the orchestra fashioned a lovely quiet sound at the end that resonated well with the audience.
The orchestra gave Dvořák’s “Symphonic Variations” an enthusiastic performance, delving into all of the thematic permutations with gusto. The musicians excelled at varying the dynamics so that each of the 27 variations had a flavor of its own. Principal flutist Erik R. Madison deserved the highest marks for his exceptional playing. The fugue section was especially exciting with a wild accelerando that had the orchestra rocking out. Even the brief pauses were exciting. It was a great piece with which to close out the concert, and the audience left with a smile.
After intermission, Mary Anne Rees, PYP’s acting executive director, announced from the stage that Portland Mayor Charles Hales designated November 9th as PYP Day in honor of the orchestra’s 90th season. Rees also mentioned that the orchestra will play in Chicago’s Millennium Park in late July of next year. That should be an exciting concert for the musicians of the PYP. It is certainly a much needed feather in the cap for Portland’s cultural scene.

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