Fall’s upon us, so the Philharmonic Association, which keeps hundreds of young people (and their families) occupied with music during the school year, began its series of orchestral concerts on the rainy, cold evening of November 21. The turnout filled up the first level of Meymandi Concert Hall well enough, and with around 108 musicians, the Triangle Youth Philharmonic, the Association’s flagship ensemble, filled up the stage pretty well, too. It’s fitting that this and the other PA orchestras perform in this venue, since the student groups are the youth orchestras of the NC Symphony. TYP’s Music Director (and the PA’s Artistic Director) is Hugh Partridge, long-time NCS principal violist. It’s nifty to have string players or former string players in so many key leadership positions hereabouts now – Partridge, NCS Resident Conductor William Henry Curry (a former violist), NCS Artistic Director Grant Llewellyn (a former cellist), etc. All things considered, string players make the best stick-wavers.

The TYP has lots of string players for its leader to wave a stick at or over — about 70 of ’em — and at the head of the class, as concertmaster, is Maia Cabeza, who has immense talent already. She’s hardly alone, however, and her colleagues include the cream of the local crop in terms of outstanding young artists. The strings sound wonderful — and there are plenty of ’em. The rest of the ensemble is more than ok, too. Yet the program heard on the 21st was not consistently wonderful. We must remember that it’s early in the term and we must bear in mind, too, that Partridge cuts his charges no slack: this was a very demanding program!

Things got underway with the Overture to Mozart’s Così fan tutte. There are too many TYP musicians for this frothy little classical curtain-raiser, but it was breathtaking to hear it played so crisply, so cleanly, so precisely, and with such enthusiasm. It was, in retrospect, the best thing on the program. Rimsky-Korsakov’s brilliant Capriccio espanol, Op. 34, is a veritable tour de force for virtuoso orchestras. Back when I was not much older than some of the members of the TYP, I had a “hot” recording of it by a French orchestra (and in a French pressing — those imported records were all the rage, too) that I played for everyone who came within ear-shot of my home — whether or not they liked music. The TYP’s performance was generally quite fine. The music has some great solo spots, and Cabeza and many others got to bask in the sun. The horns did very well, the brasses played with restrained passion, and the percussionists provided artistic and visual entertainment aplenty. It was good, if not quite as good, not quite as unified, not quite as together as the Mozart had been.

After the intermission came the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, Op. 34 — yes, the same op. no. as the Rimksy-Korsakov. This Britten piece has two names, of course. It’s this one, when it’s played without a narrator. With a speaker, it’s called “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” Just how good it is as music is easier to apprehend when there’s no speaker, as was the case in this performance. Just how hard it is was evident, too. The overall results were mixed. There was much brilliant playing, but the piece wasn’t sustained from start to finish. Energy sagged mid-stream and ensemble got a bit wavery. There wasn’t a train-wreck so much as some inattention on the part of the gang with the coal shovels who were supposed to be stokin’ the firebox. The orchestra got back into the groove as the fugue started up, however, and at the end, there were smiles all around. Just wait till you hear ’em in the spring, when they’ve been working together all year!

It’s been a pretty heady time for young musicians of late. Two of the four Rhodes Scholarships awarded to students in NC went to musicians who are members of the Duke Symphony Orchestra — concertmaster Rahul Satija and cellist Adam Chandler. And the wonderful Alan Toda-Ambaras has been in Paris, taking part in the Rostropovich Competition for young cellists, of which he was the youngest of all — he’s the ripe old age of 14. We’ll reprint a little news release sent by his family, and we’ll list his next local concerts in our calendar, so stay tuned.

“Alan Toda-Ambaras of Chapel Hill has received the Prix du Meilleur Espoir (Most Promising Artist Prize) at the 2005 Rostropovich International Cello Competition, which was conducted from November 9-20 in Paris, France. This competition, which is one of the most important cello competitions in the world, was established by the City of Paris in honor of Mstislav Rostropovich, who also chaired the jury. At age 14, Toda-Ambaras was the youngest of 77 artists, representing 24 nationalities, who participated in the competition (six were from the USA). It is open to cellists up to the age of 33, and competitors include many artists with established performing careers. Competitors were either invited or selected from international qualifying rounds conducted in Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, and Washington, D.C, all under the eye of Maestro Rostropovich. Toda-Ambaras was one of 25 semi-finalists admitted to the second of three rounds (one of two from the USA); only six artists were admitted to the final round. Toda-Ambaras received his award, which includes a concert engagement in France, from Maestro Rostropovich and the members of the jury during a ceremony at the Théatre du Chatelet in Paris on Sunday, November 20, 2005.

“As a semi-finalist, Toda-Ambaras also gave two recitals in Paris during the competition. He was one of four competitors who were followed throughout the competition by a news crew from the television channel France 2, and will also appear in a longer television documentary produced by the Franco-German classical music channel Arte.

“Alan Toda-Ambaras is the son of Misako Toda and David Ambaras of Chapel Hill. He began his cello studies at the age of four, and has since 2001 studied cello with Leonid Zilper, who holds the Nell Hirschberg Chair in the North Carolina Symphony. Toda-Ambaras has previously won the North Carolina Symphony Youth Concerto Competition, Junior Division (in 2005) and the Tar River Philharmonic Orchestra’s Young Artist Competition (in 2004). In addition to his Paris appearances, Toda-Ambaras has given recitals in Tokyo, in England, and at venues throughout North Carolina. Toda-Ambaras is a ninth-grade student at East Chapel Hill High School.

“For the Rostropovich International Cello Competition, see http://www.civp.com/rostro/rostrogb/arostrogb.html [inactive 1/10].”

[And for clips from France3 television, see http://cultureetloisirs.france3.fr/musique/actu/15933316-fr.php [inactive 8/06]. Toda-Ambaras appears in the article on the page entitled “Doublé allemand…” and in the 3rd, 4th, & 5th of the five video segments linked from the right side of the page.]

All this activity by young musicians brings to mind the so-called Mozart effect, which says that listening to Mozart — never mind playing him — makes you smarter. I’m not sure…, but it can’t hurt, I suppose. Maybe the reverse is true: maybe smart people listen to (or play) Mozart. Either way, Mozart has figured in the lives of all the young artists cited herein. Think about it — and turn out to hear and support these kids when you can. It might make you smarter, too!

Corrected 11/25/05 & updated 11/28/05.