The D.C. Youth Orchestra scored quite a success last night at Carter Barron Amphitheatre by offering the great American pianist Ruth Laredo in the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor. The free concert also marked a happy homecoming for Washingtonian Michael D. Morgan, a 24-year-old graduate of the orchestra, fresh from his Vienna State Opera conducting debut last May. Under his baton, the program also included music by Copland, Beethoven and Schubert.
Laredo was a brilliant model of artistry for the young musicians and pure joy for the audience. From the solo opening and the first movement's gentle barcarole, she worked her magic subtly and intelligently. The free and easy syncopations of her left hand surrounded the second theme and the dazzling virtuosity of what seemed like cadenza after cadenza was awesome. A buoyant scherzo led to the final tarantella, only slightly marred by severe intonation problems in the orchestra as it took up the piano's second theme, but drawing loud cheers at the close.
Morgan's beat was clear and always considerate of his soloist in the concerto. Elsewhere, his conducting seemed as inspired, even if the playing was not as well-executed. The brass was bright and remarkably accurate in Copland's overdone "Fanfare for the Common Man," but the pitch problems which are par for the course in student ensembles were perhaps exaggerated by the hot and muggy weather. The strings began Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in several keys, improved slightly in the Saint-Saens and came close to atonality in Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony No. 8. Also, Carter Barron would do well to place its numerous microphones a bit higher within the orchestra sections; as it was, the amplification was spotty and the balance distorted.
Still, if much that was heard was not the most polished music-making, it was fine music-learning. To witness the exuberance of this learning process in the hands of these young people was a pleasure indeed.