November 18, 2013

Review: USM Youth Ensemble concert at Merrill Auditorium

Young musicians display energy, finesse, sonic depth.

By Christopher Hyde

The USM Youth Ensembles concert Thursday night at Merrill Auditorium in Portland was a perfect demonstration of the ongoing process of teaching music to the young – a smooth, almost imperceptible transition from first efforts to mastery. That it could be so well performed, with the current defunding of the arts in schools, is nothing short of miraculous.


WHAT: USM Youth Ensemble

WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, Portland

WHEN: Nov. 14

The program began with the Portland Youth Wind Ensemble, conducted by Peter Martin, a huge band that nevertheless manages to produce concise performances without the muddiness often associated with so many musicians.

The works were all modern, if one still considers Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) modern. The first was “Seven Happy Years – Messages to and from Heaven,” by Stephen Melillo (b. 1957), heavily influenced by the work of Phillip Glass, but with more contrast and bite, as the messages to and fro got a bit testy. It ended with a virtuoso unison of flutes that was indeed otherworldly.

“Sheltering Sky,” by John Mackey (b. 1973), followed as a perfect foil, since its beginning, based on overtones, sounds like a glass harmonica. Its counterpoint of large voices carrying the melody was right on target. The band was also successful in riding the fast gallop of the Shostakovich “Festive Overture.”

The Portland Young People’s String Consort, under Deborah Dabczynki, represented students beginning to play in a large ensemble. Their syncopated Mussorgsky “Gopak” brought back memories of first piano lessons. The most successful of their selections was a “Te Deum” by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, which had good sonic depth and a fine delineation of parts.

Ferdinand Liva, conducting the intermediate Portland Youth Junior Orchestra, went for delicacy and finesse, with some success, although a nice performance of Gershwin’s “Lullaby for String Orchestra” was interrupted by premature audience applause. Three of Ottorino Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances,” with their marked rhythms, were more successful. First violinist Natalie Gale, of Cape Elizabeth High School, was impressive in her mastery of the highest register.

I am always impressed by the professionalism of the Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra under Robert Lehmann, and Thursday night’s performance was no exception, beginning with a brilliant rendition of Prokofiev’s “Lt. Kije Suite.” All the orchestral sections had a chance to shine, especially the brass, but Paul Phillips’ (Gray-New Gloucester High School) tenor saxophone was outstanding. Perhaps some of Prokofiev’s wildest musical jokes were beyond student instrumentalists, but the performance was exciting throughout.

On the other hand, the considerably more serious Overture to Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino,” which followed, was as good as that of most professional pit orchestras and more enthusiastic.

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