The best way to learn is to do. That is the goal of the National Orchestral Institute, the summer apprenticeship program for young classical musicians at the University of Maryland. Its National Festival Orchestra prepares weekly programs of symphonic repertoire with different conductors in a short turnaround time. The latest one was presented Saturday night at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
The performance, which centered on two of Richard Strauss’s virtuosic tone poems, might have been construed as biting off more than a less-experienced group could chew. That it was not was a credit to these talented musicians and to the savvy of this week’s conductor, Rossen Milanov. The closing work, Strauss’s mammoth autobiographical tone poem “Ein Heldenleben,” had a vast scope of sound, from the carping woodwinds evoking music critics to a violin’s conjuring of the soothing and laughing voice of Strauss’s wife, Pauline de Ahna, and the clarion off-stage trumpets heralding the composer’s artistic battles. The opening work, Strauss’s “Don Juan,” was often robust and fiery, but many finer details, particularly in fast string passages, were missing. Results varied from section to section — tuning issues in the oboe, for example, but puissance in the horns.
For the first time, the NOI held a competition to feature one of its players in a concerto. This makes sense in that, for those musicians who find a spot playing in an orchestra, accompanying concertos will take up a large portion of their time, as some orchestral musicians have been heard to complain. It was, however, a misstep to put a soloist who was not quite ready for prime time in front of the orchestra for the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. It is far too easy to fall short in such a challenging and overheard work, and far too difficult to score a great achievement.
Downey is a freelance writer.