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Monday, November 19, 2018

Concert Review: Talkin' 'bout Their Generation

The Cleveland Youth Orchestra at Severance Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Youth movement: Conductor Vinay Parameswaran at the helm of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra.
Photo from the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra website © 2018 The Cleveland Orchestra.
For this New Yorker, it is unusual to attend a concert at Cleveland's lush, elegant Severance Hall and not see the familiar musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra on the stage. But last Friday night belonged to the next generation: the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra in one of its three subscription concerts at the venue this season.

COYO, as it is known was founded for young musicians in the northern Ohio region thirty-one years ago. The ensemble consists of middle school and high school students who pass an audition and then have the opportunity for training and tutelage with members of the Cleveland Orchestra. On Friday, these young players under the baton of music director Vinay Parameswaran offered a program of John Adams, Samuel Barber and Brahms.

The concert opened with The Chairman Dances, an orchestral piece that began its existence as a scene in John Adams' first opera, Nixon in China. (Eventually the scene in which Chairman Mao reminisces about his youthful courtship of his wife and the subsequent dance scene was replaced with very different music. Adams published this work seperately.)

A piece of perpetuum mobile in the rhythm of a foxtrot, this work uses large orchestra and Adams' signature technique of small, endlessly repeated musical "cells" to create a vast and pixilated portrait of the Chinese political leader. The players responded to its demands with crisp articulation in the strings and taut work from the percussion and brass.

Next up was Samuel Barber's big-shouldered Violin Concerto, played by the small-shouldered Célina Béthoux. Winner of a vioin competition, this fourteen-year-old soloist played the difficult violin part with a full, round, sweet tone, countering the approach of other violinists who chose to go "astringent" in this music. Mr. Parameswaran and his charges produced a suitable, muscular accompaniment in its three movements.

The second half of the concert was devoted to the Brahms Symphony No. 2. What came through in this impassioned performance was Mr. Parameswaran's sense of narrative thrust. The work starts in a dark place, and moves gradually towards revelation and light through its invocation of the bucolic vacation setting in which Brahms composed the work. The sound of sunlight and steeple bells came through in the repeated intervals and the familiar symphonic subjects wove themselves into a comforting quilt of sound.

The young players of COYO handled this work well, with adroit attention paid to the muting of the timpani at a crucial moment and the noble call of an expanded section of six French horns. The four movements rolled forward with an inexorable momentum, culminating in a cheerful and busy finale: the sound of Brahms banishing his personal demons and creating a piece which the world loves. In its use here as a teaching tool for this generation of young Ohio musicians, he certainly would have approved.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats