Sunday, May 4, 2008

Portland Youth Philharmonic triumphs in season finale

The Portland Youth Philharmonic met the challenges of a very demanding program in its final concert of the season. Under the baton of former music director and conductor Huw Edwards, the orchestra tackled the March No. 4 in G Major Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Cirrcumstance”, Benjamin Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem,” and Anton Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major, “Romantic.” The Britten piece marked a premiere by the PYP and the Bruckner was a premier of the complete work.

Although everyone knows the first march of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” because of its use in many graduation exercises, the fourth march is in many ways the more interesting. The Portland Youth Philharmonic did justice to the main, stately theme and the lively secondary theme, setting a brisk tempo and wrapping it up with a flourish.

Britten’s wrote the “Sinfonia da Requiem” at the age of 26 while he was in the United States, and it is considered by many to be closest that Britten came to writing a full orchestral symphonic work. Divided into three movements that are taken from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, this piece is a powerful lament for those whose lives have been extinguished by war.

The PYP percussion battery impressively replicated the noise of battle at the beginning of this work (Lacrymosa). Outstanding playing by saxophonist Taylor Brizendine added tension to the theme begun by the strings and bass sections until the entire orchestra broke out in a series of anguished cries. The angry timpani and snarling trumpets in the second movement (Dies Irae) were impressive, and I loved the way that the saxophone floated above it all. After a huge swell of orchestral rage, the commotion died down to reveal a soothing theme in the third movement (Requiem aeternam) that accented fine playing by the woodwinds, brass, and harps. The first violins showed poise in taking over the melody and extending it to second violins, cellos, and violas. After the entire ensemble became engaged a final theme, the sound was stripped down to a lonely, plaintive note from the clarinet, played expressively by principal Tom Salata.

After intermission, the orchestra undertook Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, a dauntingly difficult hour-long work that requires stamina, concentration, and technical agility from the entire orchestra at all times. The orchestra started very well, offering a glorious explosion of sound in the first movement and the violins held onto the high tremolo tenaciously. The soundscape held together fairly well through the second and third movements, downshifting and then accelerating together and shaping the complex passages. But intonation problems crept in and became more of a problem in the fourth movement as fatigue threatened to take over. To the orchestra’s credit and the credit of Edwards, the ensemble collectively regrouped as it played and delivered a spectacular ending with a beautiful, big sound.

I liked the way that the three seniors in the percussion section took turns in playing the timpani. Charles Dietz Crabtree, principal French horn, did the heavy lifting with some brilliant playing. Principal oboist Max Blair and co-principal flutist Emma Davis also played superbly. Edwards did a wonderful job of acknowledging the terrific effort of the orchestra in this arduous work, and the audience responded with heartfelt applause and a standing ovation.

Since this was the final concert of the season, each senior in the orchestra wore a red carnation, and the program announced the colleges and universities that many seniors will attend next fall. It looked like the woodwind section will be dealt a major blow by the exodus, in particular, four bassoonists are graduating. Fortunately, the new music director and conductor David Hattner, attended this concert and will be ready to audition the next crop of players. It will be interesting to see how Hattner shapes next year’s ensemble. He is only the fifth conductor to be in charge of this outstanding 85 year old orchestra.

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