Heidelberg Youth Orchestra performs at United Church

September 7, 2011

The term “youth orchestra” means something different in the United States than in other countries. Here it means a pre-college ensemble; elsewhere, such groups include players up to the postgraduate level.

Gustavo Dudamel’s Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and Claudio Abbado’s Mahler Chamber Orchestra, based in Berlin, have players nearing age 30 and make professional recordings.

So one certainly wouldn’t compare the Heidelberg Youth Chamber Orchestra’s performance Tuesday evening at the United Church in Foggy Bottom to one from the D.C. or Montgomery County youth orchestras. Heidelberg has musicians up to age 24, who were drilled to near-professional standards by music director Thomas Kalb.

The 17 young artists gave a sparkling performance of works by Mendelssohn, Louis Gouvy, Shostakovich and Piazolla.

A serious drawback was the absence of a double bass, which robbed the ensemble of a true foundation (one was listed in the program; something must’ve happened). But otherwise the sound was impressive — although the tonal quality was unsophisticated, the intonation was good, the dynamic range outstanding, and the loud parts had superb intensity.

Kalb’s leadership and pacing were skillful, with a few caveats. He imposed unwritten and unwelcome accents in the main motto theme of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony (an arrangement of his Eighth Quartet), and the longest piece on the program — the Gouvy Quintet, another arrangement — was the weakest.

In the Mendelssohn B minor String Symphony, the wonderfully sharp, dynamic contrasts sometimes came at the expense of a steady tempo. But this group could shed the “youth” from its title, and few would notice.

The performance was the first of six free concerts to be presented through November by Concordia D.C., United Church’s music program.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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