BYOV & ODU Symphony Side-by-Side
Mahler Symphony No. 1
Sandler Center, November 21, 2017
Review by John Campbell

We were greeted by cellist and Bay Youth Orchestras of Virginia executive director Elizabeth Richards who told us that some 330 young people participate in the organization's several orchestras: String, Concert and Symphony Wind Ensemble and Junior String Orchestra. The students come from public and private schools, some are Governor's School for the Arts students and others are home schooled. Each ensemble is made up of different players based on age and level of accomplishment.

The program opened with March of the Priests (arr. Etling) from Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for the play Athalia, played by some 60 members of the Bay Youth String Orchestra conducted by Brad Shedd. Arianna Greggs was concertmaster. The music was comfortable to listen to while their second selection, an abridged Allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, offered more urgency. Some parts were full-bodied while others were quiet. With a change of conductors, Christina Morton led the String Orchestra in an abridged 2nd movement from Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. This chamber piece was richer sounding than usual because it was being played by a large string orchestra. Ms. Morton also conducts the Junior String Orchestra and Michael Oare has conducted the BYOV Wind Ensemble since 2015.

The 64 members of the Bay Youth Concert Orchestra were led by Steven Brindle, whom we know well as a conductor of new operas: David and Glass (while a student at CNU, 2010) and The Snow Maiden of Appalachia (TOI, 2016). He was music director of Tidewater Opera Initiative's summer 2017 production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Mozart's Impresario, K. 486. The overture of The Impresario was his first selection here, followed by the Prelude and French Military March from Camille Saint-Saëns' Algerian Suite. His third selection was the Finale of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2. All were presented with developing accuracy and enthusiasm.

After intermission Dr. Paul S. Kim conducted the Old Dominion University Orchestra and the Bay Youth Symphony Orchestra in the first two movements of the Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 1, “Titan.” Bay Youth Orchestras of Virginia Music Director Helen Martell conducted the last two movements. The concertmasters were Patrick Danley with Dr. Kim and Elizabeth Willett with Ms. Martell.

There is no experience like hearing a live Mahler symphony with all of its drama, beauty and excitement in a hall with good acoustics. The visceral experience of being there was wonderful. No matter that intonation here and there was imperfect. Perfection can be found on modern recordings but the heart-felt energy of these young performers carried the day.

The opening is slow and quiet as the awakening of nature after a long winter. You can hear bird calls and the distant sound of trumpets and horns playing fanfares. Later these brass players came in from the wings and sat with the orchestra. The second movement offers a spirited dance, klezmer-style party music, a street peddler's hurdy-gurdy tune and military band music—all with a strong beat set by cellos and basses. Deep tragedy and light entertainment appear back-to-back.

The third movement opens with a German children's song that leads into the music of a funeral procession with a march-like measured tread by basses and drums. Instruments are added to make a full, rich ambiance that filled the hall. By turns, the flutes, brass, woodwinds and harp offered colors that added to the enfolding loveliness. Ms. Martell conducted calmly, keeping the beat and letting the music unfold gracefully.

Suddenly there was a tremendous burst of mad power in the orchestra, as the conductor became animated.The fourth movement had begun with crashing cymbals, blaring brass, screaming woodwinds and frantic strings, only to then shudder in exhaustion. Mahler then offers comfort in a beautiful, uplifting melody. The emotional roller-coaster continues with familiar melodies and themes from the opening movement, finally returning to the waking sound with bird-calls and trumpet fanfares leading into a grand conclusion—music of transcendence overcoming misery and suffering.

Written at the end of the 19th century (Mahler lived from 1860-1911), his first symphony was not initially popular. In 1940 conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos fought hard to get the first recording of the work made. Due to pressure from the recording engineers, his tempi in the recording are rushed while the ones we heard at Sandler, though often brisk, allowed the emotional feeling to emerge naturally.

Looking at the thank yous in the program, it is apparent that it takes the resources of a large community to make the Bay Youth organization possible. Many Virginia Symphony players and other professional instrumentalists coach sectional rehearsals, while public and private schools provide rehearsal spaces and of course there are all the parents who make sure the students show-up.

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