PORTLAND — As the cynical old proverb has it, “Blessed are they who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed.”

I went to the University of Southern Maine Youth Ensembles concert on Friday night at Merrill Auditorium to see how the next generation of musicians is coming along, and to hear some student work — good, bad or indifferent.

The last thing I expected was to be overwhelmed, not merely by the professional quality of the playing, but also by the sensitive and moving interpretation.

The evening began well, with the gigantic Portland Youth Wind Ensemble, conducted by Peter Martin. Instead of the standard arrangements of old favorites, they performed a single three-movement piece by Yasuhide Ito (born 1960), titled “Gloriosa.”

“Gloriosa” was bombastic, loud, full of cliches and quite wonderful, especially if you like drums and trumpets sounding alarms. Except for a few sour notes among the beginning trombones, it was played beautifully, with infectious enthusiasm.

Principal flutist Libby Bernier managed some difficult chromatic slurs with ease, while others in the orchestra, whom I couldn’t see, imitated bird songs and glass harmonicas.

I have never heard the Portland Young People’s String Consort, under Deborah Dabcynzski, in better form. Their Shakespearean music sounded authentic, and the well-known March from Suite No. 1 by Gustav Holst was together and up-tempo.

A Mozart Rondo, from the K. 157 String Quartet, showed what the orchestra could do with four-voice harmony and counterpoint, and the final “Fire Dance” by Soon Hee Newbold (born 1974) revealed its ability with a tricky tempo.

The Portland Youth Junior Orchestra was a little bit ragged as it began Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony,” but conductor Ferdinand Liva pulled the players together magically after a few bars. The rest was pure enjoyment, especially the beautifully written and fully realized pizzicato movement and a soulful saraband.

Conductor Robert Lehmann has transformed the Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra into something hard to describe. Friday night, it sounded as if a major American symphony had finally had enough time to rehearse. Anyone who encourages a young person to pursue a career in music is committing child abuse, but

I don’t think I have ever heard Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question” better performed, by anyone. The questioning trumpets in the balcony were superb, while the strings performed the role of the perpetually unknowing Druids with serene and immortal indifference.

A second conductor led the woodwinds in “The Invisible Answer,” lost in the chaos of a different and much faster meter and tempo.

If the Ives was amazing, Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations (Op. 36) were a revelation. All of the portraits of Elgar’s friends were sensitively drawn, but the ninth (“Nimrod”) was so powerful that Lehmann had to stop the orchestra for applause when it ended.

Viola soloist Leigh-Ashley Milne (“Dorabella,” the 10th portrait) and cellist Harim Park (“B.G.N.,” the 12th one) were singled out for recognition after the performance. Park, a Scarborough High School student, is this year’s recipient of the USM Youth Ensembles Scholarship.

 

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

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