Music Review: Youth Orchestra of the Americas

Pianist Gabriela Montero brought a fresh sound to Rachmaninoff but shone brighter when creating compositions on the fly.
Pianist Gabriela Montero brought a fresh sound to Rachmaninoff but shone brighter when creating compositions on the fly. (By Sheila Rock)
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Monday, August 10, 2009

The Youth Orchestra of the Americas might be filled with fresh-faced youngsters, but the menu for its Friday night concert at Strathmore was stubbornly old-fashioned.

The fusty overture-concerto-symphony recipe was laden with warhorses: Beethoven's Fifth, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Bernstein's "Candide" Overture.

Despite the overly familiar music, it's hard to disparage the eager young musicians. The good news is, they can really play.

The strings, although lacking the luster of a Berlin Philharmonic, showed surprising roundness in Bernstein and subtlety in Rachmaninoff. The winds, too, were particularly strong, given the workout conductor Benjamin Zander demanded for his breakneck Beethoven.

"This is dangerous music, and we play it dangerously," Zander announced, explaining his preference for Beethoven's controversial, fast-tempo markings (rarely observed by others). The results were blurred notes and powerless transitions. By stomping on the gas, Zander made Beethoven less of a thrill ride.

Rachmaninoff's concerto was slightly undercooked, although soloist Gabriela Montero managed to make her part sound fresh -- but not as fresh as her encores. A fearless improviser, Montero took tunes suggested by the audience and created amazing compositions on the spot, transforming a Mozart aria into Bach-style counterpoint, laced with episodes of passion.

Finally, amid encores that felt forced, the YOA seemed to blossom into its true self in a pulsating, multi-colored performance of the Danzon No. 2 by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez.

Each year 100 musicians, ages 18 to 28, are invited to join the YOA for six weeks of instruction and concerts. Programming a wider range of music should perhaps be a lesson for the teachers to learn.

-- Tom Huizenga

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