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Young Pittsburghers Sizzle In French Fare

Daniel MeyerThe Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra, one of a number of training orchestras for young players around the U.S. (this one dating back to 1946, current ages ranging from 13 to 22), played its second concert on the D.C. circuit last Friday at Strathmore Hall. The first, on Wednesday at the Rachel Schlesinger Concert Hall in Alexandria, not heard by Ionarts, presented the same program of French favorites: the Franck Symphony, La Mer, and Saint-Saëns' second piano concerto. If a youth concert so chock full of standard, tired repertoire might have given rise to suspicious condescension, none was warranted here. These youngsters turned out fully professional, coherent interpretations of challening music.

Judging them by professional standards then seems fair, even if it warrants mentioning the 87-piece orchestra's raw and unlovely string tone in some of the more subtle and exposed passages of the Debussy, as well as a few horn bobbles. I have heard much worse, though, from vaunted professional ensembles I won't mention. What's more, the Pittsburghers en masse produced a fine, full, and focused sound, well-balanced among the orchestral sections, nicely displaying the detail of each score while maintaining admirable forward momentum.

Led by Pittsburgh Symphony Resident Conductor and Aspen Prize winner Daniel Meyer, the Youth Symphony delivered a broadly phrased, bold first movement in the Franck, a very senstive reading of the central Allegretto with fine English horn playing, and a robust final Allegro non troppo. The codas of both first and last movements were really fine, trumpets and trombones bright, clear and forceful without brutality, and a nice rallentando before the first-movement coda was a nice touch. In the Saint-Saëns, played by high school senior Jingnan Hou (also a member of the violin section!), the only disappointment was the omission of the last two movements (final exams intruding, perhaps?). Ms. Hou played with Lisztian fervor, and while there may be more poetry in the piece, Mr. Meyer's big band aproached sounded fine.

Perhaps most impressive was the Debussy, whose subtleties of rhythm, phrasing, and dynamics stump many a professional musician. Not so for Mr. Meyer's players, who (noted reservations aside) got thoroughly inside the music, with plenty of poetry and a thrilling surge of tone at the end of Dialogue du vent et de la mer.

An impressive concert, grossly underattended, with Mr. Meyer - a talent to watch - cleary deserving much of the credit. The small but enthusiastic (family-dominated) crowd was rewarded with a brisk and vital Sousa march that could give Elgar a run for his money.

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