A Student Group With Notes Worth Copying

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 19, 2006

Wonderful music is being made at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center right now.

The National Orchestral Institute has been a summer offering at the University of Maryland since 1988. It permits a carefully screened group of young musicians, ranging from their late teens through their mid-twenties, to attend a three-week, all-expenses-paid fellowship program, where the newly forged ensemble immerses itself in seminars and master classes, rehearses intensively and, ultimately, presents three public concerts. I heard the second of the NOI's 2006 programs at the Dekelboum Concert Hall Saturday night, under the direction of Stefan Sanderling, and it was, without a doubt, one of the great events of the season.

I'm a little hesitant to call this a "student" orchestra -- many of the players are already pursuing solo careers -- but it is certainly a temporary one. On occasion, the youth of the musicians and the ad hoc character of a group that did not yet exist in May and will be disbanded before July led to some less than note-perfect ensemble work. Moreover (and inevitably), not all of the musicians are on the same technical level.

Still, the loving eagerness of the playing redeemed all, and not a single note sounded tired or routine. These are not seasoned pros, playing another union gig, just one out of hundreds that will fill up their schedule this year. No, far better to liken the musicians to disciplined and supremely talented pilgrims on a collective quest for Weber's Overture to "Der Freischutz," Sibelius's Symphony No. 6 and Stravinsky's complete "Firebird," none of which they are likely to have discovered before.

The Sibelius is a work of such elevated tenderness and serenity that it is almost Mozartean. The first and last movements rank with the most joyful music I know, yet they express a steady, radiant contentedness -- a suffusion of purest serotonin -- rather than an exuberant shout. Many find the symphony mysterious -- and the second movement, with its unsettled and quizzical pauses (I'm always reminded of an amiable German shepherd cocking its head in deepening confusion) is certainly unusual.

Yet when the symphony is approached with the Apollonian reserve and cleanly objective sense of form that Sanderling brought to it on Saturday, many of its mysteries disappear. Sibelius is regularly described as a "romantic" composer, yet there is nothing confessional in the Sixth Symphony. Indeed, it seems beyond traditional passions, and Sanderling's unwavering emphasis on calm, pristine clarity suited it perfectly.

Stravinsky made his reputation with his ballet "The Firebird" in 1910, and I'm not sure he ever wrote a better piece. We are so accustomed to hearing the composer's own abridged "Firebird" Suite (which trims the music by more than half) that it is easy to forget the magnificent ruminations of the original, which melds the pomp and majesty of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov with a distinct and ferocious nascent modernism. "Firebird" is as white-hot and emotionally labile as the Sibelius is cool and sustained: Sanderling and his orchestra delivered a performance of prismatic color and exhilarating force.

There will be one more concert by the NOI this year -- a Saturday night program featuring Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony, Hindemith's "Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber" and Richard Strauss's "Don Quixote," conducted by Eri Klas -- and then the orchestra, having fulfilled its purpose, will disband. We'll hear more from many of these musicians, to be sure, as they advance to play in orchestras throughout the country, but you may want to catch them while they remain in this first, memorable constellation.

For information on the final concert, call 301-405-ARTS or visit

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