Youth Symphony Sparkles For Moms

Seattle Youth Symphony, yesYesterday, Opera House. --------------------------

It seems fitting that the Seattle Youth Symphony concluded its 50th season of concerts on Mother's Day.

Plenty of moms were on hand for the orchestra's performance at the Opera House (as were dads, siblings, grandparents and friends), and the accomplishments of their offspring could hardly have failed to please them.

Furthermore, this was alumni day for the ensemble, with a number of former Youth Symphony players returning to pay respects to their musical alma mater and attend or participate in the concert. Notable among them was Bruce Grainger, a bassoonist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who played Carl Maria von Weber's Bassoon Conerto.

With several generations of Youth Symphony players on hand, and with Vilem Sokol, the ensemble's former longtime conductor, presented with an award naming him Music Director Emeritus, the event took on a retrospective tone, one that brought home how much this organization has achieved in a half century. The orchestra confirmed that sense of value, giving admirable performances of three very different works.

The first was a new score by Seattle-area composer Alan Hovhaness, his Symphony No. 66, which the Youth Symphony had commissioned for the occasion. Hovhaness, who turned 81 this spring, shows no sign of diminishing creativity: This was at least the third score by the octogenarian composer to have been introduced by local ensembles this year.

Typically of Hovhaness' music, the new symphony was simple, accessible and somewhat austere . Built almost entirely on modal melodies suggesting by turns liturgical chant and folk songs, the work conveyed the faintly Oriental and archaic flavor that is Hovhaness' signature.

What it did not provide was any sense of the developments that have shaped Western music the past 75 years or so. Hovhaness' radically conservative style may agree with some listeners, but it offers no experience with the rhythms, melodic contours and textures of modern music. Young players ought to be familiar with these, but Hovhaness' symphony spared the Youth Symphony any encounter with them.

Nor did the ensemble have much to do in the Weber Concerto. This is a showpiece for the solo bassoon, which proves surprisingly amenable to Weber's essentially operatic style of instrumental writing. Grainger negotiated the concerto's virtuosic passagework with ease and plenty of stylistic flair, as one would expect from a member of the Chicago Symphony's stellar woodwind section.

Following intermission, about 60 alumni and friends, including a number of local professional musicians, joined the already sizable Youth Symphony on stage for Richard Strauss' tone poem "Ein Heldenleben."

It was a heroic venture indeed to attempt "A Hero's Life" with so large and heterogeneous an orchestra, but the gambit paid off splendidly. With added adult muscle, the once, present and future Youth Symphony attacked the piece with confidence and passion. Seattle Symphony concertmaster Illka Talvi contributed handsome violin solos, and conductor Ruben Gurevich led his forces safely through the thickets of Strauss' score.