Come Together: National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland, June 8, 2013

Every year, the National Orchestral Institute brings talented young musicians from across the country to the University of Maryland to make music together and otherwise deepen their craft. The NOI Festival challenges its charges right off the bat, with each player assigned to a chamber orchestra that has one week to prepare a piece and play it without a conductor. In the past, the students have met this impossible challenge surprisingly well. On Saturday night, the results were a little more mixed.

Young, talented people hard at work. Courtesy Alison Harbaugh.

Young, talented people hard at work. Courtesy Alison Harbaugh.

Conveniently for your reviewer, this program repeated three pieces from this similar concert in 2010’s NOI Festival. (The young persons likely had no idea, of course, and I confess I forgot until I looked back at the earlier review in writing this one.) The first repeat on the program engaged the services of the young percussionists gathered in College Park, as nothing on the rest of the program demanded anything but timpani.

In the above-linked 2010 review, I begged for a program note for Hungarian composer Aurél Holló’s “José/beFORe JOHN5,” and yes I typed that name correctly, thanks. In 2013, my wish was fulfilled with a spectacular note, mostly taken up with Holló’s explanations of the basis of the “beFORe JOHN” series, which is based on the number 153. Said explanation in turn contained a diagram, a quote from the Apostle John, numerological analysis of the many fascinating properties of the number in question, and an explanation that “José” is fifth in the series (thus the exponent to the fifth power…I guess) and an attempt to capture a Spanish influence.

The four percussionists tasked with realizing this vision did so with verve, looking confident as they moved from clapping their hands to face-to-face duet marimba to banging an acoustic guitar with sticks. I didn’t count beats to find the 153, but they kept the work locked in a groove with very few wobbles, and as the work progressed its structure became clear and gained power. It reminded me of my constant wish for more all-percussion concerts — the timbres are more varied than folks think (as you can hear by listening to that YouTube link above), and there are so many interesting things contemporary composers are doing for these ensembles.

So that was the first five minutes. Alberto Ginastera’s “Variacones concertantes” then kept the Latin tinge going and gave each section of the first chamber orchestra an opportunity to strut its stuff. This piece featured the best playing of the evening, including lovely cello-and-harp and double bass-and-harp duets to limn the evocative theme, lush strings in the first variation and to accompany ripe horns in the horn-focused variation, and eloquent wind playing in solos (though busier passages sometimes got messy). Most of all, they played with a rhythmic energy that served Ginastera well, especially in the rousing finale.

After intermission, we had Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” and the only non-repeat from 2010, the suite from Igor Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella.” The “Idyll” passed pleasantly but somewhat fuzzily, with strings not quite together for stretches and the horns not as bright and secure as those who had played in the Ginastera.

“Pulcinella,” though, made it clear why orchestras normally use conductors, starting in the opening measures with the worst attempt at a unison trill that I have ever heard. In this ballet, someone really needs to decide how everyone is going to handle Baroque phrasing as refracted through Stravinsky’s piquant orchestration, but everyone on Saturday had a slightly different idea from his or her fellows. The strings felt each other out and became more unanimous as the suite progressed, but it wasn’t quite enough to make “Pulcinella” come to life.

These kids’ll have a conductor (specifically, Rossen Milanov) next week and for the two Saturdays after that, and they’ll develop over the month they spend at the NOI. Were I available to attend them, I’d still go to the upcoming concerts — I’ve heard enough of the NOI over the years to know that bringing musicians this talented together often makes magic in music, even though it mostly didn’t happen on Saturday night.

The NOI’s Saturday-night shindigs continue through June 29, but there are also free chamber concerts and a performance of “Peter and the Wolf” for the kids. See here for details. 

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