Monday, March 10, 2014

Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra

Severance Hall
March 9

He puts a spell on you.

An all-Brett Mitchell weekend at Severance Hall came to a roaring close on Sunday night with fireworks from the Cleveland Orchestra’s junior ensembles, the Youth Orchestra and Youth Chorus. With Franz Welser-Möst indisposed, Mitchell had to conduct the parent orchestra on Friday and Saturday night – in two different programs. The hat trick on Sunday gave him a chance to show what he can do with his own program and players.

The 100-plus members of the Youth Orchestra benefit from regular rehearsals with Mitchell as well as mentoring from their adult counterparts, training that showed up immediately in the opening piece, Beethoven’s overture to Fidelio. It was played with surprising sophistication and authority, pulsing with the rhythms and exuberant energy that characterize an understanding of the material.

That turned out to be only a warm-up for Hindemith’s symphonic version of Mathis der Maler. Adapted from the composer’s eponymous opera, it is a work that would tax any orchestra, offering complex descriptions of and meditations on paintings by Renaissance artist Matthias Grünewald. It also happens to be an ideal student piece, with every section of the orchestra and many individual players required to step forward at some point to carry the melody or fill in the details.

The young players responded with precision and grace, setting electric rhythms and crafting sensitive solos, particularly in the woodwinds. The brass section popped like the power section of a swing band, and the violins positively glistened. Most striking was the orchestra’s clarity. Much of that goes to Mitchell, who knows how to handle a large ensemble and keep the sound clean. But the transparency of the Youth Orchestra was remarkable, on a level that many adult orchestras strive for but never achieve.

If the orchestra was good in the first half of the concert, the chorus was sensational in the second. From the opening bars of John Corigliano’s Fern Hill, a musical treatment of the Dylan Thomas poem, the sound was crisp and responsive, like a well-tuned sports car. The women get the majority of singing time in Fern Hill, and they were warm and radiant, matching the sunny lyricism of the poem. The orchestra provided flowing accompaniment, punctuated by sharp percussion. Toward the end the sound went soft, but the emotional charge in the chorus carried the finale.

Soprano Amanda Russo provided a dusky contrast to the chorus’ bright vocals in two stanzas of Fern Hill and the concluding Drei geistlich Lieder (Three spiritual songs) by Mendelssohn. Even in the relatively simple format of liturgical music, the chorus showed great depth and range. And the effect of soaring young voices was heavenly. There is simply no way an adult chorus can match the innocence and aspiration inherent in a well-trained children’s vocal ensemble.

Could you believe that chorus?” an exhausted but elated Mitchell said backstage afterward. It’s typical of him to shift the spotlight off himself and onto his young performers, but his point was well-taken. The concert never felt like a group of amateurs trying to sound professional. The intelligence and caliber of the playing and singing were high from the opening notes, and rarely sagged.

It was unfortunate that Maestro Welser-Möst was absent over the weekend. Cleveland audiences see little enough of him as it is, and his appearances with fellow Austrian Rudolf Buchbinder should have been one of the highlights of the season.

But no complaints about what got served up instead. From the intricacies of Rachmaninoff to the hymns of Mendelssohn, it was tasty.

For more on Brett Mitchell and the Cleveland Orchestra youth ensembles:

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