Monday, June 1, 2015

Great young musicians

Composer Sheridan Seyfried, right, with conductor
Louis  Scaglione at the Kimmel Center after Sunday's 
concert by the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra.
Yesterday I caught the train downtown for a concert by the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, an extraordinary ensemble of close to one hundred high school–age musicians. The program began with Across the Sky, an eight-minute overture by the 31-year-old composer Sheridan Seyfried for the orchestra’s 75th anniversary.  Sheridan grew up in Oreland, Pa. I interviewed back in the early aughts when he was 19 and had just been accepted to Curtis. I was there at Verizon Hall yesterday at his invitation.

Across the Sky was written, as Sheridan told me after the performance, with one foot firmly in the 19th century. It’s an open-hearted, colorfully scored holiday for orchestra time that could, I thought, have been penned by Dvorak. The second subject sounded, to my ear, somewhat Slavic. (Sheridan described it as a Turkish march, though we might not have been talking about the same thing.) The title and what there is of a program ― “a ride across the sky (perhaps on a chariot, or perhaps a magic carpet)” ― came after the piece was completed and were suggested by the principal rhythm, a sort of gallop in 12/8.  The young musicians, conducted by Louis Scaglione, gave it a polished, energetic reading. It was a fun few minutes.

The program ended ― astonishingly ― with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Astonishing that they would attempt such a long, sprawling work, and even more astonishing that they would come through with such a memorable performance. The level of playing was consistently high in every section, and if the climaxes in the second and third movements lacked the punch I have come to expect, my overall impression was one of well-balanced, well-integrated, well-rehearsed professionalism. Congratulations to everyone involved.

The middle of the program was occupied by Tchaikovsky’s shameless, flamboyant Violin Concerto, performed with the requisite shameless flamboyance by Michael Ludwig. It’s hard to assess the orchestra’s accompaniment, since the orchestra isn’t asked to do anything very interesting in this piece. There is not a single beautiful moment in it. Of course, it got a standing ovation.

One small mercy: The opening bars always bring a smile to my face, because they appear in Monty Python’s “Royal Festival Hall” bit.  

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