European Union Youth Orchestra in New York – Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts An Outdoor Overture & An Alpine Symphony – Itzhak Perlman plays Mozart

An Outdoor Overture
Violin Concerto in G, K216
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64

Itzhak Perlman (violin)

European Union Youth Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 18 April, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York

Once the province of local communities or the outgrowth of music education seeking to enhance the experience of young talent, youth orchestras have grown both in number and stature during recent decades to a level of prominence and proficiency that is astonishing.

Vladimir Ashkenazy. Photograph: Keith SaundersThe European Union Youth Orchestra was founded by Bostonians Joy and Lionel Bryer. EUYO’s first music director, Claudio Abbado – who has been a stalwart force in helping to train young musicians – helped build the orchestra into a world-class ensemble. He was succeeded by Bernard Haitink and, since 2000, Vladimir Ashkenazy. Representing more than twenty-seven members of the European Union, age fourteen to twenty-six, musicians are chosen from thousands of applicants through rigorous and highly competitive auditions.

The choice of Aaron Copland’s An Outdoor Overture as an opener couldn’t have been more appropriate: a thoroughly American work for the EUYO’s first tour in the US since 1988. Frequently played by high-school and college ensembles, it was written in the fall of 1938 while Copland was working on his ballet score Billy the Kid. Radiantly optimistic, the piece expresses a joyful spirit and confidence. Although the orchestra played quite well, I detected some restraint that might have been intentional, the result of fatigue or unfamiliarity with the musical idiom. The jaunty flavor of the music together with its bold Western twang never truly caught hold, notwithstanding vigorous playing.

Itzhak Perlman. © University of Florida Performing ArtsMozart’s G major Violin Concerto featured the inimitable Itzhak Perlman. His devotion to developing young musicians is admirable, evidenced by his establishment of and participation in the Perlman Music Program and his position as the Dorothy Richard Starling FoundationChair at Juilliard School. He dashed off the three movements with spirit and ease. The pared-down EUYO ensemble accompanied respectfully; restraint in dynamic levels was more appropriate here than in the Copland. The serene atmosphere of the Adagio was enhanced by a light touch in the strings and the bright, pleasant character of the finale was captivating.

Richard Strauss worked on An Alpine Symphony for four years, finishing it in 1915. Written in twenty-two sections played without interruption, the work takes us through a day-long period during which we experience vicariously the great adventure of climbing to the peak with the sunrise and descending as night falls – from its opening slow introduction depicting night in a manner reminiscent of the beginning of Das Rheingold, via a magnificent outburst at sunrise, from which we ascend the mountainside to experience a grand vision at its summit, to the descent, interrupted by a raging storm, ending at nightfall as the darkness of the opening gradually returns.

An Alpine Symphony is a daunting work even for the best of orchestras and the EUYO performed it admirably. The violinists produced a brilliant sheen and played with aplomb. Beautiful woodwind solos charmed the rarified atmosphere during the ascent. Brass played quite well, although the power they produced at full-thrust seemed somewhat deficient to achieve an optimal effect (particularly, ‘At the Summit’). Yet these musicians gave all they had at the highpoint of ‘The Vision’ and the result was overpowering. Occasional intonation problems and slight imprecision did not seriously distract from a generally excellent performance. Ashkenazy paced the work well, imbuing the opening and closing sections with an aura of mystery and holding back ever so slightly when the sun peaked over the horizon at the climax of ‘Sunrise’. Sounds of nature – which include birdcalls and yodels – where delightfully evocative.

After the ‘Storm’, I detected some strain, but the young musicians showed their capacity for endurance and professionalism. For an encore, the EUYO played ‘America’ from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story with unrestrained vigor and enthusiasm.

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