Classical music’s problems are with its institutions, not with lack of interest in the field. For proof, look no further than the next generation that institutions spend so much time wringing their hands about. At a time when classical music is supposedly dying, there are as many students as ever devoting their lives to learning to make it. The annual National Orchestral Institute (NOI) at the University of Maryland brings together some of the best young players in the country for an intensive few weeks of learning and playing. The result — as I got to hear on Saturday night in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 under Asher Fisch — is stunning orchestral playing, with an urgency and vividness that some professional institutions, alas, cannot hope to replicate.
Fisch is a Wagner expert who has been a regular conductor at NOI, and he signaled both right out of the gate with the overture to “Rienzi,” Wagner’s early opera. Though “Rienzi” isn’t part of the official Wagner canon, the musicians demonstrated Saturday that it has lots of recognizable Wagner music in it: foretastes of the melodic beauty of “Lohengrin” interspersed with some chunks of generic 19th-century operatic music. Young Wagner: It was a perfect showcase for Fisch’s sensitivities combined with the blasting energy of the young players, who made every line crackle.
But the whole program was beautifully chosen to spotlight the strengths of an orchestra filled with young talent. Bartok’s “Miraculous Mandarin” suite mingles edginess and sensuality, dabbling in taboo themes (it’s about a woman who seduces men so her male cohorts can kill and rob them, and a Chinese man who somehow can’t be killed until her seduction is consummated) with music that overtly throbs and caresses. The solo clarinet eagerly seized some great opportunities.
And Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, opening with sleigh bells and ending with an artless vision of heaven through a child’s eyes — an actual song, performed by the soprano Madison Leonard, a guest from the Wolf Trap Opera (which is doing a great job this summer reaching out to play with other local institutions, including Halcyon Stage and NOI). Leonard had a lovely natural approach and sound, if a slight lack of control on a few individual notes. But the real impression was the tenderness and shifting intensity of the orchestra, which left the small audience whooping after each piece. There are a few more performances through next weekend, at the university’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center; music lovers shouldn’t miss them.