With the National Orchestral Institute, Beauty Is Youth

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 30, 2008

We hold conductors responsible for what we hear in an orchestral concert. We expect them to inspire their musicians to better playing and fault them when they don't. But much of the impetus comes from the musicians themselves. When an orchestra is full of players who care passionately about what they are playing, who truly believe they can make a difference, the music just sounds different.

And so it was that "Blumine," a discarded movement from Mahler's First Symphony that opened the final concert of the National Orchestral Institute at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Saturday night, was one of the most stunning things I have ever heard from an orchestra.

There is a reason conductors love youth orchestras. Claudio Abbado has pulled back from nearly all engagements except his Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra; James Levine has long devoted himself to the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra; industry professionals call the student orchestra at Tanglewood the best in the United States.

The National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland School of Music is a four-week program in which 97 players, culled from more than 700 who auditioned around the country, get an intense immersion into professional orchestral playing. They are talented kids, and on Saturday they played with their hearts, as if music really meant something, as if it really had the power to save the world. It's hard to resist that kind of idealism, especially when it's expressed through meltingly gorgeous sound -- most of all in "Blumine," but also in Schumann's First Symphony and, after the intermission, the rest of the Mahler First.

Andrew Litton, the evening's conductor, raised himself several notches in my estimation. Litton, who used to be the music director in Dallas and currently has no comparable position in this country (though he is the music director of the orchestra in Bergen, Norway, and of the Minnesota Orchestra's Sommerfest), has always been a muscular and enthusiastic podium presence, and I used to think of him as glib. Hearing him this past weekend, I found that view did not quite do him justice.

Yes, he is a bit of a showman, but he really felt the music; and he communicated it to his players in big gestures, as if it were appearing in large type. He sometimes fell prey to the pitfall of overconducting big emotional moments that don't need so much direction -- passages for unison strings -- but there was generally a good correspondence between his body language and the sounds the orchestra was making.

Litton's weakness turned out, on Saturday at least, to be not so much glibness as effusive enthusiasm. He gets so caught up in the bigness of the message that he lets details get by him. This makes him a mixed blessing for a youth orchestra: His clarity and involvement are ideal, but the occasional sloppiness is unnecessary for players of this caliber. It was also a tricky precondition for Schumann, whose symphonies are tricky to begin with; they need a firm hand to steer through them.

The overall effect was of fantastic moments -- the blend of proto-Brucknerian punchiness and singing legato at the start of the Scherzo; the vigorous trombones at the close -- interspersed with some dead patches. At times it seemed that focus on simply playing the music was so occupying the musicians' attention that the interpretation went a little flat.

Litton also exudes an all-American sunniness. His eagerness matched that of his players, making these performances more rousing than intense. The songs that are interwoven through the Mahler allowed the players' lyrical instincts free rein (a child behind me recognized the minor-key "Frere Jacques" of the third-movement funeral march, and began humming along). But the clash of doom at the start of the fourth movement had no foreboding at all, just exuberant excitement.

Would that every concert had so much exuberance. But what these musicians did best of all, as they showed in "Blumine," was beauty: the aching, yearning swell of full strings, silvery flutes, kissed with percussion. That appeared to be what they most responded to, and what this music is, to them, still about.

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