By: Philippa Kiraly
It’s always awe-inspiring to hear the Seattle Youth Symphony. To see 125 children, yes, kids, on stage performing difficult orchestral works with all the professionalism and technique of musicians years their senior in age and experience is exciting and hopeful. Not every teen or preteen is glued to a computer screen or a cell phone. To get where these kids have requires years of diligent practice and stick-to-it-iveness.
Sunday saw the first concert of the orchestra’s season under its music director Stephen Rogers Radcliffe. Beginning his fourth season with the orchestra, it’s clear that Radcliffe combines fine skills as an educator as well as excellent leadership on the podium. The program notes, written by orchestra members, are models of clear understanding and information.
This was an all-Russian program with music by Glazounov, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. Glazounov’s “Carnaval” Overture is one of that composer’s best works, and the Youth Symphony gave it a rousing performance, with tremendous vitality from the first notes. Lively flutes, warm smooth cello sound absolutely together, sharply clear dotted sections and some arresting quiet ones, all joined together to make the whole thoroughly enjoyable.
The same high professional standards imbued Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Excellent work came from the brass and woodwinds, with notable solos from several principals, and plucked strings for an entire movement were as together as one enormous guitar. Both these works were shaped with dynanic phrasing.
In the middle came a huge challenge: Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, with as soloist 16-year-old Lennart Jansson, the winner of the orchestra’s 2009 concerto competition.
Jansson, who also wrote the program notes for the concerto, has been with the Youth Symphony since 2003, but has already played many solo performances. He seemed poised and at ease throughout his appearance. Shostakovich gives the cello an almost continuous role from the very first note of the first movement, and the third movement is taken up entirely by an extended cadenza.
Jansson’s technique is formidable. Nothing seemed difficult for him, his intonation was impeccable throughout and his tone uniformly beautiful, warm and rich, his vibrato appropriately varied according to what he was conveying. He describes the concerto at different places in his notes as energetic, driving, a darkly sarcastic parody, gritty, harsh and cynical.
The concerto is indeed all of these things, but Janssons is perhaps too young to know them internally, or even to imagine them, and has likely never lived the gritty harshness that Shostakovich was writing about. He did bring out urgency at times, but in particular the angst, bottled rage, worry and fear which pervade the first movement were lacking. The second became a beautiful elegy, the third Janssons seemed to know instinctively when to pause in shaping it.
The orchestra kept closely with him, with nice work from the french horn and clarinet. The whole was a tour de force for the orchestra, Janssons and of course Radcliffe, and deserved its standing ovation from the audience.
Speaking with executive director Daniel Petersen in intermission, he mentioned that all of those who auditioned for the concerto competition were of similar high level, only Janssons was a “little better.” It says a lot for the caliber of the musicians that they could field more than one of these.
The Youth Symphony and Broadway Bound Children’s Theatre are putting on a joint gala evening salute to Americal Musical Theatre at the Moore Theatre on January 15th, a new departure which should be great fun for performers and audience alike. Tickets at http://www.stgpresents.org or 877-STG-4TIX.