Finally, enough harps but no trap door. Among the highlights of the University of Southern Maine Youth Ensembles concert Thursday night at Merrill Auditorium was a brilliant performance of two movements from Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

“The Ball,” with a waltz that outdoes Strauss, relies on two harps for its ethereal atmosphere, but they are never emphasized enough. Phoebe Durand McDonnell, who is home-schooled, and Brianna Wilson of Freeport High School, with the Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Robert Lehmann, showed how it should be done.

The second movement of the pair, the “March to the Scaffold,” was equally well-played, but there was no snap of the trap door at the end. Maybe other conductors overemphasize it, but I miss it.

Before the Berlioz, the orchestra played Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture, No. 3, Op. 72b, managing to snatch the melodies from a sea of over-orchestration, a feat not many professional orchestras are capable of. It featured excellent off-stage trumpet calls by Max Richardson of Marshwood High School.

The program opened with the Portland Youth Wind Ensembles, with guest conductor Norman Huynh, the new assistant conductor of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. He was able to hold the huge band together in a sprightly performance of Percy Grainger’s Children’s March, but it was in a modern work, “Give Us This Day” by David Maslanka, that the ensemble really shone.

The composer takes his time in letting the music develop from a set of elemental harmonics, but it eventually crests to some glorious sonorities, which the band made the most of.

It is the 35th anniversary of the Portland Young People’s String Consort, conducted by Deborah Dabczynski. To celebrate, the young musicians were joined in two movements from the Corelli Concerto Grosso IV by violinists Deidre Oehrtmann, the group’s founder, and Jennifer Elowitch, its first concertmaster.

Perhaps they were inspired, but this was the best performance I have heard from the group so far. The Elgar March was characteristic, and the Galop from Bizet’s Petite Suite was taken at a good tempo. The best-played, however, was “Spartacus” by Brian Balmages, which sounds like the movie music children are exposed to most.

The Portland Youth Junior Orchestra, under Ferdinand Liva, also performed a Corelli Concerto Grosso, No. 7, which was pleasantly dance-like, with good dynamic contrasts. There was not enough distinction between the instrumental soloists and the ensemble, however.

The suite of Rumanian Folk Dances, by Bela Bartok, was also very well-played, especially the Pe Loc, which showcased a high melody over a shimmer of strings, but the arrangement lacked something of the Bartok bite. Both the Corelli and the Bartok seemed abridged – perhaps because of time constraints on a school night?

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

classbeat@netscape.net