Let’s start with Alan Mackwell, not yet 20 and already an original composer with new ideas and a command of complex symphonic writing. Mackwell’s work, “III. Secretly Ramses the Second,” opened the 77th annual festival concert of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra on Sunday. The work is actually the third movement of Mackwell’s Tintin Suite, which was inspired by the Belgian cartoon about an affable young adventurer.
Witty and unworldly
The movement works beautifully as a standalone composition, infused with powerful driving rhythms, syncopation, and melodies with an Eastern European feel and even a bit of a hoedown toward the end. Though only seven minutes long, the work is rich with varied material, including conversation among the large orchestra’s various sections, with some brilliant solo playing. With its fast-slow-fast construction, it miniaturizes the form of a classical concerto — yet sparkles with freshness, wit, and innovation. Louis Scaglione, music director and conductor, welcomed the lanky young composer to the stage for a well-deserved bow.
Continuing in a more traditional vein, the orchestra was joined by soloist Michael Ludwig in Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in A Minor (1904). From the first throaty notes, Ludwig coaxed the most luxurious, melodic phrases from his instrument, exploring the dark lower range with its viola-like introspection and rising to ethereal heights to notes that must hover just above the tuning pegs, not of this world. Truly, it took my breath away.
The orchestra kept step with its soloist, never overwhelming, hesitant, or faint of heart. Scaglione, the ensemble’s teacher as well as conductor, maintained an engaging pace, allowing the orchestra to breathe and respond to the beauty emanating from the violin. Some impressive brass playing also figured in this performance. The concerto is oddly configured, with a second, slow movement dropped felicitously into the middle of the first. The first ends with a difficult cadenza, which Ludwig made appear effortless.
A massive second act
After intermission the orchestra was joined by three soloists, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Boys Choir and Chorale for a bold performance of Carl Orff’s steamy Carmina Burana. This is a burning, seething work of music, primitive and fierce. While just about everyone loves its thundering first and final movements (“O Fortuna/Oh, Fortune”), the 23 sections in between also sing of passion and desire with a relentless, restless energy. In a way, Carmina was a perfect complement to Mackwell's concert opener Ramses, with similar bursts of syncopation and melodies possessing an Eastern European lilt.
The chorus, boys' choir, and chorale, as well as the three professional soloists — Alexandra Nowakowski, soprano; Eric Rieger, tenor; and John Viscardi, baritone – all provided excellent performances. Nowakowski in particular gave a searching, dramatic interpretation of every phrase, culminating in “Dulcissime”: “Sweetest one, I give myself to you totally!” This has to be one of the most passionate utterances in great music, and Nowakowski delivered with pure, splendid perfection.
As the 2016-17 season comes to an end, congratulations are due to the musicians, board members, sponsors, and especially artistic director Scaglione for bringing us work of such fascination, variety, and beauty. The Philadelphia Youth Orchestra is not just an ensemble of young people who graduate and go on with their careers and lives. It is a great orchestra playing great, soul-stirring, foot-tapping music that engages our minds and enlarges our hearts in the best way possible.