Carolina Performing Arts presented the European Union Youth Orchestra at Memorial Hall on the campus of UNC-CH. The orchestra is comprised of over a hundred extraordinarily talented young people representing the 27 member governments of the European Union. Their appearance is part of a month-long tour of the US that will take them from here to the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, Symphony Hall in Boston, and other venues.
The first thing one notices about this orchestra is its members' youth. They are between 14 and 24 when they audition for highly-coveted openings. The second thing one notices is the luxurious size of the string sections, which makes for a velvety smooth and rich sound whether pianissimo or fortissimo. And third; one notices the energetic and somewhat playful presentation of the orchestra's current Music Director and Conductor, the legendary Vladimir Ashkenazy. Finally, leaving the concert one cannot but carry along the energy, the superb musicianship, and the joy they find in each other and in making music together.
The concert opened with a dazzling performance of Aaron Copland's "An Outdoor Overture" composed in his so-called populist phase. The bright fanfares, lilting lyrical lines, and often syncopated rhythms allowed the orchestra to show off its technical precision and lush sound. Composed for the High School of Music and Art in New York City and premiered by their players in 1938, it employs the same musical language as Billy the Kid, written the same year.
For Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy" (Fantasia in C minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 80), the EUYO was joined by Louise Toppin, Andrea Moore, and Terry Rhodes, sopranos, Tim Sparks and Maurio Hines, tenors, Richard Banks, baritone, Clara Yang, piano, and the Carolina Choir (Susan Klebanow, director). This choral ode to nature and music was written especially for the famous concert at Theater an der Wien in December, 1808. Beethoven had been down in the pit of despair over his hearing loss but had made his stormy peace with the undeniable and now was offering to the public several of the latest examples of his astonishing creativity. It is interesting that the text, by an unknown poet, ends with thoughts of greatness, high art, and the affirmation "When love and strength are united, God's grace is bestowed upon Man." One can only wonder if Beethoven chose this text as a commitment to press on; a sort of affirmation of the Heiligenstadt Testament written six year earlier.
The stage was packed full with singers, orchestra, and a beautiful grand piano. The piano provided an extended introduction, forcefully played by Yang. The orchestra added its voice, then joined by the soloists and the full chorus in glorious Beethoven that was a foretaste of what was to come sixteen years later in the Ninth Symphony. Indeed, it was a powerful and persuasive performance.
The closing work was Richard Strauss' massive and dramatic last tone poem, An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64. An ideal piece to display an orchestra's technical skill and ensemble cohesiveness; it has great passages of tutti playing as well as solo and ensemble challenges. The music is Strauss' tone painting of a day in the Alps from sunrise to sunset and night. There are twenty-two separate but continuous episodes. The piece ends quietly as night falls with the music that we heard at the beginning about fifty minutes earlier. It leaves the listener with a calm serenity and a sense that a great adventure has drawn to conclusion.
After enthusiastic applause, for an encore, Ashkenazy led his charges in a sizzling performance of "America" from Bernstein's West Side Story. More than once in the lobby or outside on the sidewalk, a concert-goer was heard whistling Bernstein's infectious tune. What more could you ask from a symphony concert than that?