Patrons got two orchestras for the price of one--not to mention the local premiere of a work by a major composer--Sunday at George Mason University's Center for the Arts. They also heard a sparkling performance by David Hardy, principal cellist of the National Symphony Orchestra. It was all part of the "Symphony Spectacular," concluding the busy 1998-99 season of the Northern Virginia Youth Symphony Association.
The association, which gives orchestral training and experience to musicians ages 8 to 22, supports four orchestras, whose members are chosen by auditions each year. There is a string orchestra for beginners and a junior orchestra for more experienced young players, but for this gala occasion, the association presented only its two most advanced ensembles, the Virginia Youth Symphony and the musically more mature American Youth Philharmonic.
It may seem surprising that Sergei Prokofiev's Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 58 had to wait until now for its Washington area premiere, particularly considering that Mstislav Rostropovich, a personal friend of the composer and one of the century's greatest cellists, spent 17 years here as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra.
Prokofiev began working on the concerto in 1933, and it had its world premiere in 1938, but the public did not warm to it and Prokofiev continued to make small adjustments. In 1951-52, not long before his death, he and Rostropovich collaborated on a revision so thorough that it was published as a new work, the Sinfonia Concertant, Op. 125. Not surprisingly, this is the version of the work that Rostropovich has included in his repertoire.
In its first local performance, the 1930s version of this work sometimes seemed weak in structural coherence--the feeling that one section led inevitably into the next. And some sections in which the soloist engaged in prolonged dialogue with the bass instruments could have used a greater sense of contrast.
But it is music eminently worth hearing, with compelling rhythms, soaring melodies and moments of strong, expressive power. It reaches its greatest heights of brilliance in the third and final movement.
The spotlight is divided equally between the soloist and the orchestra; both have to work hard and are rewarded with impressive music. Hardy made the challenges of the piece seem simple, and so did the American Youth Philharmonic under the direction of Luis Haza.
Flanking the unfamiliar Prokofiev work was an afternoon of well-known crowd-pleasers. The American Youth Philharmonic opened its half of the program with Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," with glorious playing by the brass and percussion sections, and concluded with a suite from Manuel de Falla's highly spiced "Three-Cornered Hat" ballet--music with colorful, transparent orchestration and tricky Spanish dance rhythms well calculated to demonstrate an orchestra's strengths or weaknesses. This music was played at a fully professional level.
In the first half of the program, the Virginia Youth Symphony, conducted by Carl J. Bianchi, began with Richard Wagner's overture to "Die Meistersinger." This turned out to be a fortunate choice, oddly, because the opening measures were a bit tentative, both in intonation and in ensemble.
I call it fortunate because this piece opens with a big march tune that comes back, stronger than ever, toward the end. In this performance, its reappearance provided material for a before-and-after comparison, demonstrating powerfully how well the young players had settled down and pulled themselves together during the overture's few minutes of playing.
The remainder of the program, Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances and Sibelius's "Finlandia," was problem-free. Many of these young players are thinking of an orchestral career, and this concert showed how well they are being prepared for it.