The Kids Are (Eventually) All Right: National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland, June 5, 2010
It’s a heck of a thing to bring together a bunch of young orchestra-minded musicians, no matter how talented, and ask them to play a public concert without a conductor a week after they’ve met. Yet this is what artistic director James Ross asked of his charges as part of the National Orchestral Institute, which runs every June at my alma mater, the University of Maryland. Given the challenge of playing in tempo, in balance, and with some kind of artistic goal in mind sans maestro, all while learning each other’s names and getting familiar with the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Dekelboum Concert Hall, this year’s crop did quite well on Saturday night.
The most disappointing playing came in the first full-orchestra piece on the program, in which a subset of the 90 young folks in NOI had to deal not only with the above challenges but also with collectively responding to a soloist in Mozart’s Piano concerto no. 20, in D minor (K. 466). This set the concert off on a bad footing, particularly in the opening exposition, where balances were all over the place: the repeated notes in the violins subsumed the lower strings, and the winds and brass continually adjusted their volume in unflattering fashion. More importantly, the playing felt tentative, with indistinct rhythms and sometimes-smeary entrances and exits a half-beat behind.
Pianist Sara Daneshpour then entered and became the orchestra’s de facto leader. D.C. native Daneshpour has survived a summer in College Park with distinction, winning second prize in the university’s Kapell International Piano Competition. (Full disclosure: After writing that review, I met Sara socially one time. She is a very pleasant person.) Back then, one of the few faults I found with her playing was occasional disconnect with the orchestra; here there was zero chance of that, as the NOIers hung on her every tinkle of the ivories. When the piano played along with the winds in the central section of the slow movement and got a rhythm cooking, many members of the strings nodded their heads with the beat.
Daneshpour played with the sternness D minor demands, yet never became histrionic; the classical ideals of balance and proportion informed her phrasing and temperament, all the more pleasing given her impeccably lovely tone. The only time she stepped out of the Classical character was when playing cadenzas written by Beethoven. Here familiar music renewed its grip, with daring rhythmic freedom and unpredictable phrasing evoking (for the listener) the tradition of an improvised cadenza. At times I actually held my breath wondering what was coming next, even though I knew damn well what it was. And the contrast between the cadenza in the first movement, which constitutes her last notes in that movement, and the unstudied wistful grace of the main theme of the Romance slow movement made me gasp too.
A second platoon of NOIers came out after intermission to try their hands at Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” while standing up, doubtless in deference to the conditions of the premiere, which was held on the staircase of Ricky Rick and Cosima Wagner’s house. It is dangerous to impute too much to posture, because we have no control performance to guide our discussion, but the playing certainly seemed quite alert, with tighter ensemble and greater timbral coordination than before the break. One of the clarinets, locked in a duo with a horn, even wriggled his body sympathetically with his melodic line, a nice visual for the audience. Still, even this very fine performance of this work felt like all the other performances of it that I’ve ever heard: A slip into a warm bath that makes you drowsy. I think the problem is me.
Besides setting daunting challenges for talented young musicians, Ross also uses NOI to explore various facets of concert presentation. Along with the standup act in Wagner, we also had two percussion-only pieces, neither of which were mentioned in any advertisements for the concert or were discussed in the program notes beyond giving their title and composer.
This does not seem to be the best way to present the audience with a surprise. Indeed, a distraught (elderly) audience member was heard to utter “This is horrible!” when the concert opened not with the elegance of Mozart but the rhythmic fury of Dave Hollinden’s “Whole Toy Laid Down,” which did indeed sound analogous to a wind-up toy, with rhythmic patterns layering and changing until they reached climaxes that resolved only with fermatas, followed by more winding up.
Aurél Holló’s bizarrely titled “José/beFORE John5 played exuberantly with timbres, both your standard drums and rattling things and with a shawm-esque reed instrument and a pedal steel guitar-looking thing. (Program notes, please.) In a triumph of project planning, the performers ensured that every instrument was at hand at precisely the right time, sometimes for only a short stint before moving on to the next one. Open chords and the drumsticks strumming the guitarish thing foreshadowed Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes, which closed the program.
The Ginastera solves many of the problems of conductorlessness by relying mostly on big, brazen solos with relatively simple accompaniment, thus making the third group of NOIers the luckiest of all. Everyone who soloed did so with swagger: Poised, lovely cello and double bass solos gave the theme and its reprise, respectively; a gorgeous-toned, effectively wild clarinet solo stole the show; appropriately dramatic viola soliloquies brought the gravitas; and the group came together for a high-spirited finale. If these young people can play this well on their own, just think how well they’ll do with guidance on the next three Saturdays!
A NOTE ABOUT THE NOTES
The program notes for the three non-percussion pieces featured one detailed, lengthy, scholarly note for each one, plus a two-paragraph summary of that note in larger font. I had trouble reading through the long notes to find stuff I didn’t already know (I had to rely on my concertgoing companion to unearth that interesting tidbit about Wagner’s staircase) and found myself actually preferring to read the shorties. An interesting idea, worth trying some more.