For those not familiar with the splendid performances by the young musicians of the Midwest Young Artists Conservatory, this season offers a plethora of opportunities to see their ensembles in action. The concerts of the full Symphony Orchestra under the stewardship of Dr. Allan Dennis are always a highlight, and the 25th Anniversary Celebration and Alumni Concert December 29th in Orchestra Hall is a can’t-miss event. But Sunday at Bennett Gordon Hall at Ravinia in Highland Park, MYA aficionados had a chance to hear the musicians ply their trade in more intimate settings. Four ensembles of varying sizes tackled works from the Baroque and Classical eras, with one contemporary piece for good measure.
The concert opened with a buoyant chamber orchestra rendition of Mozart’s Symphony No. 36. The slow introduction of the first movement unfolded with an air of mystery, with well-groomed solo passages from oboist Tim Zhang and bassoonist Nick Nocita. Dr. Dennis led his forces through a bustling Allegro proper, followed by an elegant, light-footed second movement Andante, Mozart's occasional mild dissonances providing a touch of piquancy. The maestro took the Presto indication in the last movement quite literally, and the students took to the challenge head-on, with crisp articulations and sharp dynamic distinctions that brought the rondo form into high relief.
Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 was composed for the smallest and least varied ensemble in the set of six: three violins, three violas, three cellos, one bass, and harpsichord. Dennis stepped away from the podium, allowing the the students to lead themselves in true chamber music fashion. The risk paid off handsomely, the musicians taking cues primarily from harpsichordist Kimie Han and violinist Daniel Wu. The playing was robust and precise, and the players demonstrated admirable unanimity of style and balance. The final allegro was bright and vigorous, with transparent textures and precisely prepared solo passages from all.
Sadly, most pre-college music schools give short shrift to the skill of musical composition. Fortunately MYAC gives their students this option, and a woodwind quintet (Lucy Rubin, flute; Clara Stein, oboe; Samuel Perlman, clarinet; Andrew Zhuang, bassoon; Zach Greenberg, horn) presented the first performance of Liam Diethrich’s Woodwind Quintet. It was a delightful piece, filled with engaging tunes and perky rhythmic riffs. As varied and satisfying as all of these performances were, the highlight of concert was a solo appearance by violist extraordinaire Carrie Dennis, daughter of MYA’s conductor/founder and former member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, and Los Angeles Philharmonic. Ms. Dennis gave a riveting performance of the Bartók Concerto a couple of years ago, and this time around she chose the Hoffmeister Concerto as her vehicle. This concerto is a staple of the repertoire, but it’s presented more often in the hands of students in academic contexts than by professionals of Dennis’ caliber. For those listeners who only know the work from budding violists, her account was nothing short of revelatory. The opening bars were imbued with a confidence and musicality that presented Hoffmeister’s underrated melodic inventiveness in a new light. There is a fine line between tasteful classical elegance and robust extroversion, and the violist managed to inhabit both worlds simultaneously. The lyrical line was always paramount, and the horn call double stops were deftly dispatched.
The Adagio second movement is nearly Mozartian in its pathos, and Dennis delivered a poignant reading that was deeply moving from start to finish. She began the movement with little vibrato, then slowing warmed up the tone as the musical tension grew. Her sound was deep and singing, every phrase caressed with deeply felt affection.
The violist chose a blistering tempo for the finale, and it’s hard to imagine any living violist pulling it off with such unwavering tenacity and unflappable technical command. Articulations were clean as a whistle, rapid fire arpeggios were tossed off with ease, and the melodic snippets sandwiched between virtuosic passages were beautifully molded. After such a definitive performance of this warhorse of the viola literature, I’m certain that many in the MYA ensembles were prompted to rush home to work with renewed commitment on their current repertoire.
Midwest Young Artists Symphony Orchestra and Big Band
Youth ensembles have specific challenges that adult musical organizations rarely face. A sizable portion of the membership departs at the end of each academic year, and a new, less experienced class enters the fray. And there is a good chance that for each work programmed in public concerts, most of the musicians are approaching it for the first time. The Midwest Young Artists Conservatory Orchestra under Dr. Allan Dennis is not immune to these challenges, but they seem to address them with more determination and success than most. Now entering their 25th year of exemplary musical training for Chicago area youth, the orchestra opened their season with the first of what will be many celebratory events in a concert Sunday at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall at Northwestern University.
But before the Orchestra took the stage, MYAC’s Big Band played a set with its new director, Quentin Coaxum. It was clear from the outset that the bandleader has earned the respect and affection of his musicians, and with his animated visual cues and infectious exuberance, he soon had the audience eating out of his hands.
Coaxum’s set of mostly jazz standards was nicely varied, and the idiosyncrasies of the composers and arrangers had clearly been absorbed by his young players. Bill Holman’s “Told you So” featured fine solo work by pianist Jonah Karsh and trombone player Ted Wyshel. There were also stylish solo turns from Drew Morhun (trumpet), Joey Ranieri (bass), Chris St. Leger (tenor sax) and Brandon Jaimes (trombone) in Ray Brown’s “Ray’s Idea.” The ruminative solos from alto sax player Matthew Dardick set the mood in a laid-back rendition of “When Sunny Gets Blue”, and the Duke Ellington masterpiece “Black and Tan Fantasy” came alive with soulful contributions from Dardick and Miranda Towler (trumpet). Karsh, Ranieri, and drummers Alexander Rivera and Amil David combined for a the tight and stylish rhythm section.
It’s not often that youth orchestras enjoy the thrill of presenting a world premier, and its’s rarer still when they are asked to contribute to the creative process. The Symphony Orchestra opened its section of the concert with James Stephenson’s MYA Palooza, a rousing concert overture brimming with infectious rhythms, multiple meters, and catchy tunes. Composers have borrowed or otherwise incorporated melodic ideas from other sources throughout the history of written music, and the use of a couple of tunes from MYAC students gave the work a personal touch that, along with the title, will forever link this delightful piece to the educational mission of this exceptional institution.
Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor is not as outwardly flashy as some of the big orchestra warhorses the orchestra has tackled in the recent past (Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, Strauss’ Till Eulenspielgel, etc.). But, like the Rachmaninoff, it demands a level of interpretive maturity from string sections that is a rare commodity in youth orchestras. But MYAC’s strings distinguished themselves hansomely, and Dr. Dennis brought an especially personal connection to the piece, conducting without either score or baton.
The grim slow introduction unfolded deliberately, Brahms’ richly chromatic counterpoint beautifully rendered by the orchestra’s strings and woodwinds, accompanied by the throbbing pulsations from timpanist Patrick Thornton. The allegro proper had an appealing restlessness, and as a whole the first movement was viscerally dramatic, nowhere more so than in the extended, slowly building passage leading to the recapitulation. The coda was dark and menacing before resting at last on a major chord.
Few works in the composer’s catalog can match the intimate lyricism of the second movement of this symphony, and Dennis’ hands coaxed enchanting playing from each section. Principals Tim Zhang (oboe) and Sam Perlman (clarinet) spun dulcet solos that effortlessly reached the rear of the hall. The rapturous violin lines were a highlight of the evening, played with soulful expressivity by concertmaster Rebecca Moy.
Brahms was so intimidated by the example of Beethoven that he waited until he was in his forties before completing his first symphony, consigning earlier sketches to the oblivion of a desk drawer. But rather than slavishly imitating the earlier master, he went his own way, most notably by substituting a genteel allegretto for the standard scherzo or minuet. Flutist Jonathan Wu was a standout in a reading that brimmed with an appealing Schubertian grace.
With the obvious exception of the 9th symphony, Beethoven tended to weight his symphonies towards his opening movements. But Brahms’ finale is the longest and most complex of the four. It’s the most heroic music Brahms’ ever wrote for the orchestra, and Dr. Dennis and his forces imbued the score with imposing grandeur.
There was an enchanting, almost impressionist swirl to the opening adagio introduction. Kevin Zawila’s gleaming horn calls over string tremolos were expertly done, paving the way for the sunshine of the main allegro. Here the strings gave a glowing rendition of the first theme, and the brass and timpani provided sharp bursts of energy. Greta Shawver (trumpet) and Jacob Weisbard (trombone) led their sections admirably, and the orchestra saved their best for last, charging to the final bars in blazing, unrestrained triumph.