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.