BYS at the concert, photo contributed by Ms. Zhang

A few months ago I accidentally run into a recording of Saint-Saëns's Le carnaval des animaux produced by Seattle Youth Symphony, and I was surprised by the quality music the youths were playing. Although "you can't compare every performance you heard with the BPO's (i.e. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra)", but to be honest I think they had a good sense of the music, also what they did is just of minimal errors. These two points, I believe, are of the essential points that make a non-professional performance admirable, so I began to wonder, how are the youth orchestras in the U.S., a country that parents are probably more likely to send their children to the youth orchestra not primary for the advantages in the college entrance examinations but for some good valuable experiences, like?

In late May, Ms. Zhang, the principal cellist of the northern campus orchestra of our college, told me that there is an opportunity to play with a youth orchestra from the U.S. I soon decided join that temporary compiled orchestra, naming "Guangzhou Philharmonic", as a violinist. Guangzhou Philharmonic is actually the name of a commercial company that operate the youth orchestra's stop at Guangzhou, and both Zhang and I later dislike the commercial and somewhat arrogant altitude they held and bring into the activity. But however we were excited by the oppotunity to play in Xinghai Concert Hall, the best concert hall in Guangzhou and probably in Southern China, also by the possibility to get face-to-face to the young American colleagues. (I should note here neither Zhang nor I are conservatory students. Zhang is an amateur pianist and cellist while I am an amateur violinist and conductor, and music is just one of our hobbies)

The youth orchestra is named Boulder Youth Symphony (BYS) from Colorado under the stick of China-borned violinist and conductor Yin-feng Keynes Chen. A brief Google'd returns their website along with some performance video at Youtube. Not all the video can satisfy critical ears, but it was said that the players that join the China tour were carefully picked, so I guessed I should still bring the ears that aiming to prepare a brief review as I always did for concerts given by professional orchestras. Probably they will also be happy to know that someone had the interest to listen to their rehearsal and concert seriously.

Boulder Youth Symphony | Yin-feng Keynes Chen

2010 June 6, 15:00 CST at the Xinghai Concert Hall, Guangzhou

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
1. Overture to "Prometheus", Op. 43
2. Symphony No. 4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60: I. Adagio - Allegro vivace

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
3. Fantasia on "Greensleeves"

Leroy Anderson (1908-1975)
4. Plink, Plank, Plunk! (1951)

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
5. "Samson et Delila", Op. 47, Act III: Bacchanale

Our conductor informed us that the BYS would have a public rehearsal at South China Botanical Garden in the morning of June 5, surely Ms. Zhang and I would go to pay a visit. When we arrived the Garden, the young boys and girls were practicing the Allegro part of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony. Only a few seconds after I heard the first note, I knew I was listening to a quality performance given by a quality youth orchestra: they were then playing at a tempo even quicker than Karajan & BPO's 1982-85 recording, but however their sense towards the music is appreciably unique in such conditions -- for example the short notes by Violin I appeared in the theme of Allegro were generally played with tidiness; the percussion controlled the dynamic very well, and the woodwinds and brasses were also good, except the oboe -- although I personally respected every oboist since they are so rare -- probably it was because the oboist did not recovered from the jet lug yet? It is a long way to Colorado though.

BYS rehearsal at South China Botanical Garden on June 5

We did not heard them practicing the "Prometheus", also we had to wait for the next day to listen to the harp (Oh yeah it is HARP! "I really wish I can touch it!" Ms. Zhang remarked) in the Greenleeves Fantasia. Composition of Leroy Anderson -- who is one of the American music symbols -- was selected, and the performance of "Plink, Plank, Plunk!" was more than enjoyable. This time it was a string-only performance (comparing with the only recording I have, which is for full orchestra), and special technique was used to create "gliss" effect. For Saint-Saëns's Bacchanale, the strings again impressed us when their controlled the dynamics very well on illustrating the theme played woodwinds.

In all, the majority of orchestra had a good response to the conductor's implication, primary on dynamics and the expression of music, so sometimes I could feel they are really "playing" the music instead of simply making the notes out. For any non-professional orchestra the ability to reach this point is very admirable, because you would need not only good technique but also good sense to do this. Master Chen was strict on the outcome, too; at one part he even required the timpani to re-practice for several times simply because he thought it should be a little bit more piano. Certainly the beginning "doug" of the Fourth Symphony was especially emphasized by Master Chen -- he required the strings to re-practice it for quite some times to ensure the players would "make" the note together. It gave me a feeling that Master Chen was trying to produce quality music regardless of the quality of audience, although I bet he knew there wouldn't be much audiences that was coming for a "concert" instead of a "sightseeing" on the next day. He is very professional. To conclude, the rehearsal satisfied Ms. Zhang and I, and we were looking forward to listen to their formal concert.

We were told that there would be an interaction time with the Americans in the morning of June 6 so we brought some trio and quartet scores, unfortunately it wasn't true. But we weren't too disappointed since we still got chances by our own. Ms. Zhang had a nice chat with elderly lady who was the mother of an American cellist, also she was able to catch Master Chen after the concert; I had a good talk with Kenna, the violinist, and played some part of Er Quan Yin Yue ("Reflections of the Moon on the Water of Erquan", which is one of the best known Chinese melodies) with her.

Unfortunately the boys and girls did not have a solid performance in the afternoon but I think the horrible audience was the main reason. Although it is normal that the afternoon concerts are generally not of best audiences, but I have to say that was the most horrible and embarrassing audiences I had ever seen and had not expected for quite a long time in China. The oboe failed to make a good "A" for tuning at the beginning, and the players appeared to be nervous when started. The Fourth Symphony, unfortunately, was quite far from what I heard on the rehearsal; even Master Chen could not stop the orchestra from pushing the tempo. Master Chen nearly stormed out at the begining of Greensleeves when a baby audience made 110dB+ noice, but thankfully he seems to calm down himself quickly after that. He made unusual long pauses before the last two compositions, using eyes and gesture to effectively encourage the players, so the Anderson's work and Bacchanale was still okay. I believe an excellent conductor is the one who can manage to set things right when things are going wrong and I believe Master Chen is sort of that.

In the second half, our Guangzhou Philharmonic accompanied with Justin, the principal of Violin II of BYS, to play a Chinese traditional composition, the "Butterfly Lovers". Justin gave a good performance and won the stand-up salute from the audience. From my point of view, Justin only made one fault, he entered one bar early in block 3, but thankfully the whole orchestra soon caught up with him; except this fault, Justin played fairly well, and I think the stand-up salute was a deserved honor for him.

The BYS will continue their China tour to Guilin, Xi'an, Beijing and Shanghai, and it is said that they will give concerts at the Central Conservatory of Music and the EXPO. I hope there will be good and quality audiences that can appreciate the music they play, and I sincerely hope them to enjoy the rest of their China tour.