Music, Review, Youth

Denver Young Artists Orchestra at Boettcher Hall

A review by Robin McNeil

Sunday, February 9, I attended an absolutely tremendous concert at Boettcher Hall presented by the Denver Young Artists Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Wes Kenney and Maestra Javan Carson. It featured all five of the orchestras that are under the aegis of the DYAO. I cannot say this strongly enough: the musicians in the DYAO do not comprise an organization that sounds like a typical young high school orchestra. These students are absolutely amazing, and they clearly spend a great deal of time practicing their instrument and sharing an obvious love for music.

Javan Carson

Javan Carson

Maestra Javan Carson opened the program with a collaboration of The String Ensembles in the DYAO, and that group isan amalgam of the younger members in the organization. Note that the name String Ensembles is plural, and that is because there are three separate string orchestras that make up The String Ensembles. They opened the program with a work called I’m Shipping Up To Boston which was, as the program notes point out, an arrangement of a Woody Guthrie tune done by the Celtic punk band, Dropkick Murphys. The all-American Dropkick Murphys band was formed in 1996 by a group of musicians from Boston, where there is a large contingent of Irish and Scottish immigrants (As a matter of fact, one of the bands members has a pseudonym, Spicy McHaggis. I’m sure all of you know that haggis is a traditional Scottish dish.). At any rate, the band was taken by the popularity of Celtic music, and they decided that is where their emphasis should lie.

The String Ensembles performed this Irish jig with a very obvious enthusiasm. The rhythms were sharp and clear, and all of the musicians (I refuse to call them youngsters) were working very hard to infuse this work with a marvelous spirit. It was as if they had been playing Irish jigs all of their life, and it was readily apparent that their excitement took many in the audience by surprise.

Next on the program, came a work by Gustav Holst (1874- 1934), the fourth movement of his St. Paul’s Suite, Opus 29, Nr. 2. Holst dedicated it to the St. Paul’s Girls School where he was the director of music for almost 30 years. The program stated that this was to be the third selection performed, but for whatever reason, they switched this with the “second” work on the program. I suspect this was done because Gustav Holst, in his fourth movement of the Suite, Opus 29, makes use of the Dargason, which is an English country dance, quite similar to an Irish or Scottish jig. Holst also paired this dance theme with the English folk song Greensleeves, which provided a very interesting contrapuntal texture. I cannot be sure, but my memory tells me that the theme of the Dargason was the folk song; It was a maid of my country. The musicians seemed to appreciate the contrast between the somewhat rowdy folk dance, and the lyricism of Greensleeves. Again, the rhythms were sharp and clear, which created a marvelous contrast to the slower, but ever forward-moving folksong.

Denver Young Artists Orchestra

Denver Young Artists Orchestra

Shostakovich’s work, Waltz Nr. 2, from his Suite for Variety Orchestra was originally written for all the instruments of the orchestra, but Shostakovich indicated that the different movements of the suite could be played in any order, and, presumably, he would have had no objection to it being played by a string orchestra. I am confident that he would have been extremely pleased with the performance given by The String Ensembles of the DYAO. It was very impressive to watch these musicians so involved in their performance. Many were swaying with the ¾ meter of the waltz, and all of them were truly “digging into” their instruments to make the tone as rich as possible. Their passion for what they were doing was clearly a result of Maestra Carson demonstrating and teaching them how to be expressive as they play. Simply because one plays a violin or a cello, doesn’t mean they can make terrific music. There is no doubt that she is providing the kind of guidance that will, hopefully, give the majority of the students an opportunity to have a career in music.

After the Shostakovich, the Conservatory Orchestras took the stage and performed the well-known Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s opera, Cavalleria Rusticana. This Intermezzo separates the two acts of Mascagni’s opera based on jealousy and revenge. It was beautifully done, and the strings were warm and mellifluous, and, again, these musicians demonstrated an intense musicality and emotion in what they were performing. The conviction with which they played this familiar work made it seem as though they were quite familiar with the plot of the opera.

A friend of Jean Sibelius, Axel Carpelan, as the program notes correctly stated, was responsible for providing the funds to Sibelius in order to compose his 2nd Symphony without the encumbrance of teaching at the Helsinki Conservatory. Sketches were done on a trip to Italy, but most of it was done upon his return to Finland for the summer. Sibelius made several revisions to the piece after its first performance, and the revised version which we know today, was finally premiered in November of 1903. The symphony was very well received, though much to Sibelius’ annoyance, many tried to ascribe programmatic considerations to the last movement in particular.

The Conservatory Orchestras performance of the last movement of this Sibelius symphony was truly excellent, and they did indeed infuse it with a kind of “new direction” which must have inspired many Finlandians after the 1902 and 1903 performances. This performance was very interesting in that it displayed another step in the progressive development of young musicians. They were more attentive to the conductor, Maestra Carson, and they seem to be more attentive to each other as well. They received a well-deserved standing ovation.

Hsing-ay Hsu, Piano

Hsing-ay Hsu, Piano

Following the intermission the Denver Young Artists Orchestra performed the Piano Concerto in G Major by Maurice Ravel. They were joined onstage by Colorado’s own Hsing-Ay Hsu because the scheduled Italian pianist Alessandro Deljavan had to cancel his performance due to problems obtaining a visa. Certainly everyone is aware that Ms. Hsu is on the faculty at CU in Boulder, and is the wife of composer Daniel Kellogg. It was an incredibly fortunate circumstance that Hsing-ay Hsu was able to do the stand-in performance. She has performed this piece before, of course, but such a demanding piece is difficult to keep in one’s repertoire in order to perform immediately without warning. Nonetheless, she gave a breathtakingly wonderful performance, using the music. I point that out not to be derisive, but to give her an even heartier accolade, because it seems to me that performing a concerto with an orchestra, relying on the music, would be infinitely more difficult than doing it from memory. It was also in this work that the young artists of the orchestra began to make themselves known. The woodwinds in the brass of the DYAO are absolutely sensational, and that is taking nothing away from the rest of the orchestra. But in this concerto, Ravel gives the flutes, clarinets, oboe, and trumpet a real opportunity to shine. The entire section did just that.

What amazed me most of all with this performance was the unbelievable confidence that the members of the orchestra demonstrated in performing with such a formidable pianist. Every member of the orchestra was totally focused on what they were doing, and it seemed as though they had given this kind of performance with this kind of soloist many times per year. Maestro Kenney said it best of all after the performance was over: “Hsing-ay Hsu said to me after a rehearsal that it was like playing with a professional orchestra. I responded by saying, ‘Yes, that’s what it is all about.’”

Hsing-ay Hsu’s performance was full of brightness and absolutely boundless energy. The piano was Ravel’s favorite instrument, and it is in this work that he seems to take such delight in all of its sonorous possibilities, even turning the melodic line into trills. He certainly writes that way for the brass and woodwinds as well, complete with trombone glissandi. The second movement is one of intense introspection, surprising with its haunting flute melody which was so beautifully done. The last movement, full of harp, flutes, clarinet, and bassoon, was performed far above any “youth” orchestra that I have heard. Hsing-ay Hsu is an absolutely wonderful pianist, but I have no doubt that playing with the DYAO will be a memorable experience for her. Why? Because these musicians demonstrated a remarkable reliability that was beyond their years. Yes, Maestro Kenney demands that kind of thing, but demanding reliability, and actually obtaining it, are two different propositions. The audience could not help themselves but applaud after each movement of this concerto, and when it was finished, they received a very well-deserved standing ovation.

Wes Kenney

Wes Kenney

Following the piano concerto, the DYAO performed The Firebird Suite, Nr. 2, by Ravel’s friend, Igor Stravinsky. This is the first of Stravinsky’s ballets, and it tells the story of a Prince who befriends the Firebird, and summons the magical creature to help him defeat evil. It was written in 1910, at a time when Stravinsky was still under the influence of French Impressionism, though most certainly, it contains Stravinsky’s own concept of Impressionism.

The opening low strings were absolutely sensational in their depiction of dark mystery and enchantment. Throughout the entire work the piccolo, clarinet, and oboe were sensational, as were the bassoon and French horn. This is a difficult piece of music, but again, the DYAO performed it as if all the rhythmic difficulties, the difficulties with entrances, and the sudden dynamics, were all in a day’s work. And, of course, for musicians that is the case, but the DYAO played this piece with distinction.

The audience, parents, brothers, and sisters, responded with another standing ovation, and it is my sincere hope that every parent in Boettcher Hall realizes how gifted these hard-working musicians are. It is also my sincere hope that the nonsense that “you can’t make a living in music or the arts” was recognized for what it is: nonsense. Any career path, doctor, attorney, or engineer, is difficult, and anyone can fail along the way. But, these musicians have already established the discipline which it takes to succeed, and they have learned to respect the art of music, and to respect the outcomes of each other’s hard work. My money is on them.

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