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Concert review: the Stanford Youth Orchestra impressed last Friday at Bing Concert Hall

Three weeks of intensive rehearsals culminated in a third and final performance by the Stanford Youth Orchestra (SYO) on Friday, July 25 at Bing Concert Hall.

Christine Parker, associate director of Stanford’s Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes, opened with a few brief words. She explained that this program — designed to bring together academically and musically gifted students — was launched last year to coincide with the opening of Bing Concert Hall. Parker commended the hard work and dedication of the students, instructors and staff during the three-week experience and then welcomed the musicians onstage.

Ensconced on the terraced stage, the orchestra opened with Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46 (1888-1891). “Morning Mood” began with the flute and oboe alternating the melody, swelling in volume until the instruments joined in a harmonious anthem depicting a glorious sunrise. Next, was “The Death of Ase” with its mournful ascending chords and slow tempo. Next, was the lively and whimsical “Anitra’s Dance,” accented with twinkles of the triangle. The fourth piece, “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” began simply, as the cellos, double basses, bassoons, and bass drum were gradually joined by the violins and then later the full winds and brass.  The addition of instruments through the piece contributed to a swelling crescendo that concluded in a fast and frenzied ending.

The suite showed off various dimensions of the orchestra and fully engaged the audience with a series of short and diverse pieces that drew attention to different instruments. Conductor Anna Wittstruck was very animated and energetic; the orchestra followed her directions with extreme precision, and the result was a very impressive, cohesive performance.

Next was an outstanding rendition of the “Allegro moderato” from the Violin Concerto in d minor, Op. 47 (1904) by Jean Sibelius, performed by Yong-hun Kim, a winner of the Stanford Youth Orchestra 2014 Concerto Competition. The double stops and flying runs were especially impressive, demonstrating great skill and artistry. The orchestra’s sound was well-balanced with the soloist’s, providing vibrant undertones to complement the lively melody.

After a brief intermission, the concert resumed with François Borne’s “Fantaisie Brilliante on Themes from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’” (1900), featuring another SYO 2014 Concerto Competition winner, Emily Zheng. The piece was a brilliant medley of various themes from the famous opera. It showcased Zheng’s deftness and expressive tone, and once again, the orchestra complemented her sound beautifully, never overpowering it.

The night concluded with “Selections from Romeo and Juliet, Suites 1 & 2” (1935), composed by Sergei Prokofiev. Conductor Jindong Cai explained that the four pieces were chosen to retell the story of the ill-fated lovers, as well as to spotlight different sections of the orchestra. The first selection, “Montagues & Capulets,” was a dark and brooding piece, the first half of which consisted of a foreboding melody shared between the strings and horns. In the second half, a melody carried by the flutes wound delicately to the accompaniment of only a few other instruments until the loud, discordant theme returned for an emphatic finish.

“The Young Juliet” showed off a lighter and brighter mood, with the flitting sounds of the flutes conveying the exuberant innocence of Juliet’s youth. The saxophone’s brief solos added an interesting element to the playful blend of sound. In stark contrast, “Death of Tybalt” introduced an adventurous, upbeat mood. Initial excitement spiraled into a feverish whirlwind of notes full of dissonance that abruptly dropped off into a slow, heavy and menacing ending. The suite closed with the despairing “Romeo at Juliet’s Grave,” which began with a dreamy, eerie melody and ended with a single high note from the piccolo rising over the soft, silvery notes of the strings. When the last notes had faded away, the audience responded with thunderous applause.

Parting with an encore, the orchestra played the very spirited “Slavonic Dances” by Antonin Dvorak, providing a fiery conclusion to the concert, which was enthralling from start to finish.

The quality of music produced was remarkable, especially considering the short three weeks the orchestra had to practice music for three different concerts. Bing Concert Hall’s stunning acoustics further augmented the orchestra’s beautiful sound and made the performance even more enjoyable.

This final concert was a wonderful testament to the efforts poured in by the young musicians, conductors and faculty who organized this program, and it was a splendid finale for SYO.