Every year during the holiday season, when families re-unite and take a breather from the hustle and bustle of the calendar year, a group of young musicians and seasoned judges get down to serious business at the the Midwest Young Artists Conservatory Fort Sheridan home base for the annual Walgreens Competition. This event is a highlight of the competition circuit, and the MYAC Symphony Orchestra concerts in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall that feature two of the winners always stand out among the many youth orchestra performances in the Chicago area.
The winner of the Overall Open Division was James Baik, a senior cellist at New Trier High School and student of Hans Jensen. His performance of the first movement of the Schumann concerto was so utterly assured that one had to continually remind oneself of his young age.
This concerto is considered more intimate than some other cello concertos (Dvorak, Saint Saëns, Elgar, etc.), but Baik’s interpretation was muscular, full-blooded and profoundly extroverted. I can’t remember hearing a cellist of his age with such a vigorous, penetrating sound and intense, fully formed vibrato. The rapid-fire scales and other technical challenges were so easily vanquished that one could take them for granted and focus on the rhapsodic sweep of his interpretation. Balance can sometimes be an issue in this composers’ orchestration, but conductor Allan Dennis kept his forces in check while the cellist’s tone sailed effortlessly to the back of the hall. Mr. Baik is one to watch.
Bartok’s Viola Concerto from 1945 was his last major work, but the composer was unable to finish it due to failing health. His good friend Tibor Serly produced a finished version a few years later, but a newer one edited by the composer’s son Peter and violist Paul Neubauer was the one chosen by Dr. Dennis for this performance. Senior violist Ezra Burca, winner of the MYAC Senior Division and student of Desiree Ruhstrat, was the superb soloist.
One doesn’t often encounter the works of Bartok in competitions for young musicians, but Burca’s dramatically urgent and deeply focused account of the first movement of the composer’s Concerto for Viola made a case for more frequent entries. The movement begins with the violist’s lyrical lines with only a barebones accompaniment. Burca drew a lovely, burnished sound from his instrument, and seemed entirely comfortable with the awkward passagework. The cadenza was beautifully shaped, with the difficult double stops coming off without a hitch. The orchestra provided precise, supportive accompaniment, with bassoons and double basses being especially noteworthy.
Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday last year provided a good excuse (if any were needed) to survey the American composer’s most beloved works. Among his more substantial orchestra works, the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story are easily the most programmed. This collection may not pack the virtuosic wallop of some of MYAC’s other orchestral ventures recently (Stravinsky, Strauss, Prokofiev, etc), but any convincing performance stands or falls on the understanding of the stylistic idiosyncrasies. On this point, the orchestra was spot-on.
Dr. Dennis captured the angular, swinging, and sultry spirit of the prologue with idiomatic aplomb, finger pops and all. Here and elsewhere, MYAC’s tireless percussion section drove the action hard. “Somewhere” is one of the composer’s most seductive tunes, and the orchestra’s strings excelled in carving out the melodic contours. Allan turned to the house a couple of times in “Mambo” to encourage audience participation, and trumpets (muted and otherwise) dug into the theme with raucous abandon.
The string pizzicatos in “Cha-cha” were perfectly coordinated with the woodwinds, and concertmaster Christopher Gottardi-Littell gave a lush account of the violin solo. The “Cool fugue” has never sounded cooler, and the menacing “Rumple” reached for the rafters. A full minute passed in silence after the finale, so moved were the parents by the poignant performance.
The concert opened with a robust account of Festive Overture by Shostakovich, a crowd favorite and an uncharacteristically cheerful work by the Russian master. Its’ popularity with youth orchestras is due in part to orchestration that allows nearly everyone in the orchestra to shine. With virtuosity to spare in every section, Dr. Dennis lead an ebullient, driving reading that delighted the audience from start to finish. The superb trumpet section signaled a musical call-to-arms that was picked up with elfish charm by clarinetist Eric Butler. Swirling flutes in octaves, led by principal Cecillia Gao, lead to a bold statement of the main theme by the splendid violins. Low brass and cellos excelled in their time in the spotlight, and the busy percussion section kept the ensemble in tight synchronization.