The Philharmonic Association presented its three orchestras (and two subsets thereof) in two Raleigh concerts before Thanksgiving. The educators and artists of the PA engage around 300 – maybe more – young people in music making that can produce jaw-dropping results. They start with one group that accepts players still in the 4th grade. The groups seem to parallel the configurations of our schools – elementary, middle, and high school – although there are some anomalies along the way. The conducting staff currently numbers five, and there are some distinguished coaches and guests as well. The groups now perform regularly in Meymandi Concert Hall, home of the NC Symphony, which is one of the sponsors of the PA. Shifting to Meymandi from local school auditoria has had an extraordinary effect on the perceived results of the young people's work – and, apparently, on the musicians' morale, too. It's kind of like the difference in singing in a gym and singing in, say, Westminster Abbey. For better or worse, the venue matters.
The "big" group, the Triangle Youth Philharmonic, performed on Sunday afternoon, but it makes sense to discuss these orchestras from the ground up, so we'll start with the program given before a large crowd – the main floor of Meymandi was nearly full – on a cold, wet, miserable Tuesday evening. First up was the Triangle Youth Orchestra, whose conductors are Helen Bishop, band director at Ligon GT Magnet School and an alumna of the Raleigh Youth Symphony Orchestra (RYSO) program, and Timothy Holley, cellist and professor at NC Central University (and an occasional CVNCer). This group consists of beginning ensemble members, and they play short, sometimes simplified works by major composers. On this occasion, the program included "Simple Gifts," the wonderful Shaker hymn used in several major works by Copland, a Sinfonia by Alessandro Scarlatti, a little caprice by Rossini, and some snippets from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6. Conducting duties were shared. You can't expect perfection in terms of intonation or ensemble, but this group has promise – and from it in due course will come members of the PA's other orchestras. There is safety in numbers, and there are 55 string players in the TYO (and 19 other instrumentalists); overall, things went pretty well, and there were many felicitous moments along the way.
Next, the Triangle Youth Symphony took the stage with a more ambitious program of music by Holst, Mozart, Bizet, Raleigh resident Tom L. Lohr, Mussorgsky, and Alexandre Luigini, the one-hit composer of Ballet Egyptien. The conductors of the TYS are Tony Robinson, band director at Wakefield Middle School, and Marta C. Findlay-Partridge, of Athens Drive High School and Cary High School. This group fields more than 65 string players and 29 other instrumentalists, and the overall results reflect the greater maturity and experience of the members. There were no weak moments in this part of the concert, although some sections went better than others. That said, harshest criticism is probably due the dreadful arrangement of "In the Bleak Midwinter" that began the set. Here, one of our most serene carols was introduced with outbursts of percussion and cymbals and then subjected to periodic infusions of like madness amid the stanzas. 'Twas enough to bring to mind the old Protestant litany, "Spare us, Good Lord!"
The opening movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 25 found everyone in good form; the tempo was brisk, the playing, incisive and tight, and the intonation was fine. Five excerpts from Bizet's two Carmen suites were likewise impressive, and not only for the string playing – two trumpeters did superb work, and the other brasses and winds were generally as good.
Tom L. Lohr, a professor at Meredith College, wrote his Suite for Strings in 2004 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Lamar Stringfield Music Camp (named in honor of the NC Symphony's founding conductor) and the work of the camp's founder, Meredith violinist Phyllis Garriss. It's a fine little suite that the strings of the TYS played with enthusiasm. Particularly noteworthy were the contributions of Concertmaster Carter Coleman. Lohr and Garriss were on hand to enjoy the performance, after which Findlay-Partridge presented a gift and flowers to Garriss in honor of her 50+ years of service as a string teacher in our community.
PA Artistic Director Hugh Partridge then came on stage with Robinson to present him a plaque marking his tenth year of service with this orchestra. To conclude the program, Robinson led a selection from Luigini's Egyptian Ballet and "The Great Gate of Kiev" from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The results were a bit mixed, but then Pictures often separates sheep from goats in the major leagues, too. Overall, there was fine music-making in this part of the concert, giving pleasure in its own right and providing comfort that there are some wonderful artists in the pipeline leading to next year's Triangle Youth Philharmonic.
As noted, the Sunday afternoon concert featured the TYP in its fall concert, and this time the lineup included also two other, smaller ensembles – a brass ensemble of a dozen or so players and the same group, augmented with percussionists. It was this latter ensemble that began the program, playing an arrangement of "The Procession of the Nobles" from Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada. This is fine and exciting fare, and the performance had a great deal going for it, but even better than the immediate realization, led by NCS Principal Trombone John Ilika, is the promise this group holds in terms of enhanced ensemble playing within the larger TYP. Yep, these folks are doing this stuff just right!
The full orchestra, led by Hugh Partridge, who teaches at UNC and is the recently-retired Principal Viola of the NCS, then performed the Prelude and "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde, one of those long-span orchestral bits by Wagner that can tax even seasoned pros. The TYP players did it amazingly well, putting up a great wall of sound from the 100 musicians (the NCS should be so fortunate!). There were some little lapses in concentration, but the tempi were good and the sweep was there in every measure.
The same could be said of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, which – after the brass ensemble played an antiphonal Canon by Giovanni Gabrielli – concluded the program. The Beethoven is neither short nor simple, yet the young musicians realized it handsomely, leaning into the somber portions, giving lots of edge to the dramatic bits, flying through the scherzo, and making much of the finale. The enthusiasm was palpable. Of course, there were lots of people on stage playing it for the first time – and probably lots of people in the audience hearing it for the first time, too. Everyone can know that what was heard was absolutely in keeping with the mainstream performance standards that surround this cherished work. It was good, and we are all very fortunate indeed to have these players coming up in our midst. The future of concert music is secure as long as we have groups like these to train the next generations of players – and listeners!