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Youth Orchestra Marks 20th Birthday With Triumphant
Mahler Climax to Neale's 12-year Stint as Music Director

San Francisco Chronicle

May 22, 2001

By Allan Ulrich

 

Inspiring was the first description that came to mind. Profoundly musical was the second, and, in the long run, it will be the more significant. Sunday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra marked its 20th anniversary by lighting candles for itself and for Gustav Mahler, too. His Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (called the "Resurrection"), in a triumphant performance, completed the regular season and marked, also, the climax of Alasdair Neale's 12-year tenure as music director.

 

Yes, that's right, Mahler's Symphony No. 2, with its immense orchestra; five-movement, 95-minute span; its huge chorus; two vocal soloists; and encompassing vision. This is not a work professional orchestras tackle blithely, and it is certainly not common fare for an organization composed of teenagers.

 

Yet over the past two decades, to virtually everybody's enormous surprise and satisfaction, the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra has altered expectations of a student orchestra. It has also reaffirmed that in a period when serious music is in danger of fatal neglect by the media and funding agencies, there is a growing generation that still cares deeply. With such artistic potential among the young, survival of our musical life is more than a possibility. It seems part of the natural order.

To reaffirm the bond between generations, the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra management blurred the line between professional and nonprofessional.

 

Vance George's Symphony Chorus served in the choral finale as it would during a subscription concert of the parent orchestra, and two esteemed singers—soprano Nicolle Foland and mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar—were engaged for the occasion.

 

till, from the opening measures, it was the players' relationship with Neale that paid the most dividends. Even the important international orchestras don't always phrase with such unanimity or respond to their conductor with voicing and balances of such pristine clarity. Detail everywhere—contrapuntal string figures, chirpy wind contributions, myriad percussion contributions—struck the ear with the force of revelation. You could start with the violins' scrupulous diminuendi and the cello's spine-chilling spiccati in the first movement funeral march. You could cite the even staccato attacks of the brass in the lyrical second movement. You could rejoice in the pungent winds in the ironic adaptation from "Youth's Magic Horn" in the third.

 

Neale's cueing of entries and his firm beat are a dream to watch. If the conducting inclined to the emphatic, the performance was direct and unmannered, always resistant to sentimentality and always sensitive to a grand design. Space between notes, the moments of repose, mattered as much as fortissimo roars (the start of the finale), and the final exaltation, the rebirth suggested in Mahler's own verse, engulfed the hall.

 

True, the afternoon was sprinkled with moments that reminded you that these musicians still had much to learn. The offstage horns sagged a bit in pitch, and the concertmaster seemed to acquire more confidence as the afternoon proceeded. But this assuredly was the "Resurrection" Symphony in all its variety, its folksy interludes and its heaven-storming affirmation.

 

The soloists left a mixed impression. Quivar's understanding of the "Urlicht" (Primal Light) poem in the third movement rivals anyone's, yet the singer's instrument has lost support where it counts most. Foland contributed reliably, but, for the sake of contrast, the soprano here ideally should possess a brighter, more angelic timbre. George's choristers were expectedly magnificent in projection, blend and range of dynamics. The standing ovation was as much for them as for the orchestra.

 

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