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.