Seattle Youth Symphony gets Berlioz’s macabre ideas

Seattle Youth Symphony

Chalk it up to today’s youth being avid readers of the fantasy/reality mix: Harry Potter, the Twilight series, Artemis Fowl. (A generation ago the rage was Judy Blume, at least for the girls, and the trials of being a teen in today’s world.)

So the way-out phantasmagorical work that is Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique” is music today’s kids have no trouble getting inside. Whether it was their understanding, the skill of the orchestra’s music director Stephen Rogers Radcliffe, or their astonishing technical ability, the SeattleYouth Symphony musicians gave a performance at Benaroya Hall Sunday which sent chills and thrills down the backs of at least one listener.

This is not easy music to play. From the long lines of the beginning theme, which sang light and beautiful with pauses which felt like breath and helped shape it, to the skittering sound of the witches in the last movement combined with the exuberant headlong rush of their dance, the performance absorbed the hearer. Clear, well phrased solos particularly from clarinet and english horn, excellent synchronization-it’s always a treat to hear an entire section playing as one instrument-and the sheer aliveness of their playing made this performance a memorable treat.

Difficult as is the Berlioz, what had come before was equally so. Radcliffe has the confidence to stretch his young musicians with works any orchestra would find a challenge and expect them to come up with the goods, which they did. Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture” swung with foot-tapping forward motion, and no player seemed fazed by the intricate cross rhythms which abound. I checked in frequently to hear the claves (wooden sticks) or wood box player, who had to be counting with fierce concentration the off-rhythms he was playing spot on, but kudos must go as well to the entire percussion section. At the end, there was a long pause of total silence in the audience, which included many young children.

In between the Gershwin and Berlioz came Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem,” which began with a startling bash on the bass drum. As befits a requiem the emotions were quite different, but the high quality remained, again with the percussion section doing excellent work. That’s not to short change the rest of the 122 players for whom there was barely room on stage, and it was notable that there were some very young musicians in responsible positions. String tone shone, energy and a fine sense of togetherness marked the playing. I’ve never heard theYouth Symphony sound better, and I look forward to their next concert.


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