Friday, November 17, 2017

Portland Youth Philharmonic uncorks 94th season with terrific opening concert

Works by Beethoven, Chopin, and Dvořák received polished performances by the Portland Youth Philharmonic, which opened its 94th season on Saturday evening (November 11) to a fairly large audience at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. While the spotlight fell on Natalie Tan, who played Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto with grace and élan, the orchestra under music director David Hattner excelled with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Dvořák’s “Hussite Overture.”

It was interesting to find out that this was the first time that the PYP had performed Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, one of the most popular in the repertoire. The program notes suggested that the concerto’s heavy emphasis on the piano and its relatively light orchestration might have been the reason for the delay. In any case, Tan, winner of the 2016-2017 PYP Piano Concerto Competition, tossed off numerous runs and beautiful melodies with a keen sense for color and line. In her hands, the keyboard sang with a bel canto flourish, and the mazurka in the finale sparkled. Her artistry, aided by wonderfully sensitive accompaniment from the orchestra, swept up the listeners so much that vigorously applauded at the end of each movement. At least three bouquets were given to Tan after the piece ended.

Hattner and his forces held absolutely nothing back in its performance of Beethoven’s Fifth. They got off to a quick start that featured sharp and pinpoint attacks. Within a few bars, the musicians were rocking and rolling with the piece, and electrified the audience. The strings – including the large cello section – deftly negotiated a number of wickedly fast passages with remarkable panache! A couple of listeners in front of me had never heard the PYP before and just couldn’t believe that a youth orchestra could play so well. They were among the first people to jump out of the seats and applaud and cheer. Although there were some missed notes, the performance was exceptional for its power and energy. Playing by the principal oboist and clarinetist and the French horns highlighted the performance.

With its first-ever performance of Dvořák’s “Hussite Overture,” the orchestra also delivered a committed and thoroughly engaging performance. The stately hymn established by the woodwinds and strings was supported solidly by the French horns. Outstanding dynamic contrasts with crescendos and decrescendos coupled with a crisp series of sforzandos and a quickening pace turned the piece in an exciting Bohemian barnburner.

The concert featured a different timpanist for each piece. Each player had a different style that was fun to watch, and each of them contributed outstandingly. In general, all of the musicians played at the very high level that Hattner demanded, which made the concert a joy to hear.

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