The University of Southern Maine Youth Ensembles concert Thursday night at Merrill Auditorium was well-attended by parents of the musicians, but turned out to be something that non-parents could also enjoy, for the quality of the music. The Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robert Lehmann, outdid many professional bands, but the other groups also offered some well-performed music.

The large Portland Youth Wind Ensemble, under guest conductor Norman Huynh, was in good form. They began with a bandleader’s special, “Portrait of a Clown” by Frank Ticheli (b. 1958), which demonstrated that such a large group could be quick on its feet, followed by “O Magnum Mysterium,” by Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943). The latter is often sung by church choirs, but sounded better with the volume and delineation of parts offered by the instrumental version.

The high point of their program was the First Suite in E-flat by Gustave Holst (1874-1934). Holst is best known for “The Planets,” but was a genius at musical education, and his pieces for band are among his best and most lasting works. The suite was played professionally, with good tempi and dynamics, plus a singing melodic line.

The youngest musicians, in the Portland Young People’s String Consort, with guest conductor Timothy Burns, sounded the best they have in years, with familiar works by Handel, Haydn and Bizet, followed by two modern pieces that tested their abilities playing syncopated rhythms. The final “Furiant,” by Elliot Del Borgo (1938-2013), was the best played, after the musicians had a chance to warm up, and sounded a lot like Aaron Copland.

A test of any string orchestra is its ability to bring out the characteristic voice of the composer. The Portland Youth Junior Orchestra, under Ferdinand Liva, did just that with the Sinfonia No. 1 in C Major, by Felix Mendelssohn. The job is even more difficult when the composer is still trying to find his own voice … at age 12! The early piece was written for professional musicians who got together to play at the Mendelssohn home, and is not “easy” by any stretch of the imagination.

What is one to say about the Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra? They continue to amaze and inspire. On Thursday night they began with a rousing orchestral version of “Voices of Spring” by Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-99) that would give the Vienna Philharmonic pause, followed by an awe-inspiring rendition of the final three movements of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite.

The latter is one of the most triumphant finales in music – an infernal dance, followed by a berceuse that puts the monsters to sleep, and then the few bars of the Firebird’s victory dance. It may be sacrilege, but youth and enthusiasm, like that of Venezuela’s Bolivar Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel, may well trump the ability and experience of professional orchestras. I have seldom heard a performance of “Firebird” as good as this one.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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