Dallas — If we had any idea what was in store when Filarmónica Joven de Colombia (Colombian Youth Orchestra) took the stage at the Meyerson Symphony Center, there might have been a waiting list for tickets. As it was, a scantly filled house experienced an amazing concert, which kicked off the first season of AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Classical Criterion Series (which replaces the Recital Series).
If there is a solution to the problem of dwindling audiences for symphonic concerts because of their stifling erudition, then we certainly saw one possibility on Thursday evening. Maybe only a young orchestra could pull it off, but this organization, under the athletic direction of Houston Symphony’s new music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada, ranks in the top tier of a lifetime of concert going.
And they are young, indeed. The musicians, between the ages of 16 and 24, are the survivors of a demanding audition process and come from all over Colombia. In this regard, it is similar to the New World Symphony, founded by Michael Tilson Thomas in Miami.
The men wear tux coats with shirts open at the neck, forgoing even a hint of formality that a tie would furnish. Tails and black gowns, the usual orchestral uniform, was all the rage a century ago, but it only survives in symphonic concerts. Nor do they sit frozen in their seats while they deliver a searing and white-hot performance of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring.
Before the ballet the concert opened with a harbinger of what was to come. Gabriela Lena Frank’s recently composed Escaramuza was a thunderstorm of drums and mixed-meter accents. It is more like a noisy fanfare than an actual composition.
Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 ended the first half of a concert, brimming with intensity. The magnificent cellist, Johannes Moser, was the guest artist soloist. He attacked both the concerto and his instrument as if in a blood-sport performance. In fact, he disabled his cello in the second round (er, movement) with a broken string, grabbed the cello out of the hands of the principal cellist and pummeled that instrument through the end of the piece.
If this sounds like a criticism, it is not. This is how that concerto needs to be played. There can be no polite half measures. Even in the reflective slow movement, Moser played it with such heartbreaking and unutterable sadness that it gave no respite between the outbursts of fury that surrounded it. Orozco-Estrada was right with him the whole way, in both the music and the rough-hewn passion.
Little did we know that all of the first half was just a warm-up for what followed with an even more—if you can believe it— intense and louder reading of The Rite of Spring.
First of all, the titles of the various sections of the ballet were projected, along with some appropriate animation here and there so you could actually follow the ballet’s plot. (This should always be done in a concert performance of ballet music.)
This was a magnificently played performance of an extremely difficult work. But the real innovation was that the ballet concept went one giant leap beyond that. The orchestra was actually choreographed, and in a way that was remarkably consistent with Stravinsky’s intent. Far from distracting, the movement and actions of the players, as well as some striking lighting effects, kept the audience riveted as Stravinsky’s barbaric music exploded resulting in as fine a performance as you will ever experience (“hear” is the word for ordinary concerts).
The program didn’t credit a choreographer, but this person deserves a bow as much as the conductor does (or, was this person, in fact, the conductor?).
Before the music started, the stage was completely dark. The players crinkled some kind of paper that added a realistic sound of a fire—and then one was projected, an effect that earned applause. Then, stand lights appeared one at a time. The players were slumped in their chairs as if asleep. As the (beautifully played) haunting bassoon solo started, they began to wake up when it was their turn to play.
As the ballet progressed, the players moved in waves, shimmied their instruments in such a way as to reflect the light in flashes. Instruments would rise up out of the orchestra and then disappear back into the crowd. Hands raised in choreographed motions, sometimes holding white cloths and percussionists’ sticks waved like semaphore on shipboard. Bows became weapons as the violin tribe threatened the neighboring tribe of violas and cellos.
You had to be there. It was amazing.